DuPONT, Wash. (AP/KOIN) — An Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a faster new route hurtled off an overpass south of Seattle on Monday and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below, killing at least three people, injuring more than 100 and crushing two vehicles, authorities said.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Brooke Bova said at a 4 p.m. press update that they are now only confirming three fatalities. “Some people are critically injured,” she said. “We have a lot of critical injuries.”
Seventy-seven passengers and seven crew members — not 5 as previously announced — were aboard when the train moving at more than 80 mph derailed on a route that had raised safety concerns. Roughly 100 people were hospitalized, more than a dozen with critical or serious injuries, authorities said.
A total of 12 cars derailed and two engines were involved. Five cars and two semitrucks were hit on freeway below. No motorists on the freeway were killed.
Bova said all the cars, including all the rail cars, have been searched.
Battalion Chief Jay Sumerlin with the West Pierce Fire Department said it was difficult to get everyone out of the train and to check each car.
“The firefighters were in a very dangerous place as the train dangled over I-5,” he said. Firefighters used “a lot of extrication tools, air chisels, Jaws of Life. Some of the rescues were by ladder. It was a difficult place to be.”
The official who was briefed on the investigation also says preliminary signs indicate the Amtrak train may have struck something on the track before going off the track.
The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The official said because the tracks were new it was unlikely to be a maintenance issue.
In a radio transmission immediately after the accident, the train’s conductor can be heard saying the train was coming around a corner and was crossing a bridge that passed over Interstate 5 when it derailed.
“I’m still figuring that out. We’ve got cars everywhere and down onto the highway,” he tells the dispatcher, who asks if everyone is OK.
Mid-afternoon press update
At a mid-afternoon press conference, Washington State Police Trooper Brooke Bova said there was no information to be delivered about those who died.
“Our priority is on recovery,” she said, although she added she didn’t know if anyone was still onboard the train.
Gay Banks Olson, the assistant superintendent of Operations Northwest for Amtrak, said the National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene and will investigate many different possibilities.
The safety board launched “a go-team to investigate the Amtrak passenger train derailment in the State of Washington.”
“Speed is being investigated by the NTSB,” she said. “Anything beyond that is pure speculation,” including the report there may have been an obstruction on the tracks.
She said 13 of the 14 cars (12 passenger cars and two locomotives) jumped the tracks.
“Amtrak is going to do everything possible to take care of the passengers,” she said.
Chris Karnes was on the train, three or four cars back from the front. He said the only part of the train remaining on the tracks was the rear locomotive. Several cars were hanging over the overpass.
All southbound lanes of I-5 are blocked near Mounts Road in Pierce County and will remain closed for quite some time, officials said. That will delay traffic all along I-5 into Oregon.
“It looks like this is a catastrophic derailment,” said Ron Pate, the Cascades Rail Corridor director for WSDOT. “Right now we’re on a fact-finding mission.”
Amtrak Cascades debuted a new route from Seattle-Portland that takes trains on an inland corridor parallel to Interstate 5 through Tacoma, Lakewood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and DuPont.
Following the derailment, Alaska Airlines lowered their fares for Monday and Tuesday to help those affected. Tickets are normally more than $200, but are now $99 each way, KOIN 6 News confirmed.
FULL NTSB PRESS CONFERENCE:
Eagle Scout on the scene
Daniel Konzelman, 24, was driving parallel to the train on his way to work as an accountant in Olympia. He was about 30 seconds ahead of the train on the freeway when he saw it derail.
Konzelman, who was driving with a friend, said he pulled off the freeway and then ran down along the tracks and over the bridge to get to the scene. They saw three cars and a semitruck on the freeway that had been damaged by the derailment. There were train cars with their roofs ripped off, or that were tipped upside down, on both sides of the track or turned sideways on the bridge.
They climbed into train cars and found people hurt — some pinned underneath the train, others who appeared to be dead, he said. If they were mobile and seemed stable, he helped them climb out. If they appeared seriously hurt, he tried to comfort them by talking to them.
“I just wanted to help people because I would want people to help me,” he said. “I’m an Eagle Scout. I have a lot of first-aid training and emergency response training.”
They stayed for nearly two hours before hitting the road again.
“I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. I saw a little bit of both,” he said.
Passengers and helpers
Aleksander Kristiansen, a 24-year-old exchange student at the University of Washington from Copenhagen, was going to Portland to visit the city for the day.
“I was just coming out of the bathroom when the accident happened. My car just started shaking really, really badly. Things were falling off the shelf. Right away, you knew that this was not something minor,” he said.
The back of his train car was wide open because it had separated from the rest of the train, so he and others were able to jump out to safety. He was at about the middle of the train, either the sixth or seventh car, he said, and was “one of the lucky ones.”
Daniella Fenelon, a 19-year-old from Southern California, was on the train taking a cross-country trip as part of her winter break. She said she was asleep when the accident happened.
“Suddenly there was just a jolt, and I didn’t know what was happening,” Fenelon said.
She slammed into the seat area in front of her, and the windows exploded, said Fenelon, who was treated and released from a hospital with a possible concussion.
Another passenger, Adrian Thompson, said, “It’s like we’re turning and spinning and the train behind us hit us and it was just like a whole lot going on.”
Thompson also said that at first it just felt like the car he was in came off the rails before he realized cars were smashing into one another.
Dr. Nathan Selden, a neurosurgeon at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, said he and his son drove through the accident scene while traveling north to visit Seattle. The doctor asked if he could help and was ushered to a medical triage tent in the highway median.
The most seriously injured had already been whisked away, but the patients he helped appeared to have open head wounds and skull, pelvic or leg fractures, as well as small cuts and neck sprains, he said.
Selden, the chair of neurological surgery at OHSU, told KOIN 6 News about some of the people he helped.
There was a couple in their 80s who were looking after each other, he said. He helped get them into an ambulance.
“I examined a little baby who had flown out of his mother’s arms … and fell off the tracks. I examined that baby who was cooing and smiling at me as if nothing had happened,” Selden said.
He told the AP it was a miracle the baby appeared completely unharmed.
“That was a wonderful boost of morale for me and, I think, the people around me.”
He also said there were other people who pitched in, including those without medical training or expertise, who carried boxes from the firetrucks over to tents.
“Everybody there was doing what they could in a really spectacular way,” Selden told KOIN 6 News.
Preisdent Trump responds
President Donald Trump used the deadly derailment to call for more infrastructure spending in a tweet sent about three hours after the accident. He said the wreck, on a newly completed bypass, shows “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
The train was making the inaugural run on the new route as part of a $180.7 million project designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound that’s bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.
The Amtrak Cascades train service is jointly owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Amtrak operates the service for the two states as a contractor and is responsible for day-to-day operations. Amtrak Cascades runs trains from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon.
The Amtrak schedule called for the train to leave Seattle around 6 a.m. and arrive in Portland about 3-1/2 hours later.
Monday marked the first public use of the new bypass built on an existing inland rail line that runs along Interstate 5 from Tacoma to DuPont, near where Train 501 derailed. Track testing was completed in January and February in advance of Monday’s launch, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The tracks, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, are owned by Sound Transit, the transit agency serving the Seattle area. They were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.
The mayor of Lakewood, Washington, a city along the new route, predicted a deadly crash — but one involving a fast-moving train hitting a car or pedestrian at a grade-crossing, not a train tumbling off an overpass. At a recent public meeting, he called on state planners to build overpass-like rail structures instead of having trains cross busy streets.
The train was going 81.1 mph moments before the derailment, according to transitdocs.com, a website that maps Amtrak train locations and speeds using data from the railroad’s train tracker app.
The maximum speed along the stretch of track is 79 mph, according to information about the route posted online by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
All southbound lanes of I-5 were closed south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and motorists were being warned to avoid the area.