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Amtrak Train Hurtles Off Overpass; Wash. State Patrol Reports Three Fatalities

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Cars from an Amtrak train lay spilled onto Interstate 5 below as some remain on the tracks above Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in DuPont, Wash.

(This story is being updated throughout the day. The most recent update is from Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 12:15 p.m.)

An Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a new route hurtled off an overpass Monday near Tacoma and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below. A spokeswoman for Washington State Patrol said there are three confirmed fatalities and multiple people injured.

Brooke Bova, spokeswoman for Washington State Patrol, said there were 77 passengers riding the train at the time and five crew members. Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said that approximately 80 passengers were on board the train along with the five crew members and one technician from the train manufacturer, Talgo. 

The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed the train was traveling at 80 mph around a curve that was a posted 30 mph zone. A team of investigators will be on site Tuesday to walk through the scene. They could take as many as 10 days to gather information, but a full report explaining what happened may take a year to complete.

The train, which derailed about 40 miles south of Seattle at 7:33 a.m., had 12 train cars and two engines. Pierce County Sheriff's Department Detective Ed Troyer said 13 of the 14 cars derailed.

Crews have been working since Monday night to clear the area. They are now moving the train cars to a staging area at Joint Base Lewis-McChord where NTSB investigators will be on hand to inspect the wreckage. Officials with the Washington State Transportation Department expect the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 to remain closed until at least Wednesday while cleanup continues.

Train Cars On Roadway

Troyer said several vehicles on Interstate 5 were struck by falling train cars and multiple motorists were injured, though he said at this point none of the people in vehicles on the highway has died in the accident.

"Some of the cars were struck by the train and crushed and it’s actually a miracle that by looking at the scene in the photos, you would think some people in the cars would have lost their lives, but fire departments got out there, extricated them, did a lot of cutting, got all the patients out of the cars and got them off to the hospitals," he said.

Northwest News Network correspondent Austin Jenkins reported live from the scene at 10:00 am with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.

Chris Karnes was on the train, three or four cars back from the front.

Credit Washington State Patrol via AP

"I'm not sure what got hit. I'm not sure what happened," Karnes said.

Help From Witnesses

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 semi-truck 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.

'Like A Pinball In A Pinball Machine'

Patricia Freeman was one of the passengers on the train Monday morning and says she was excited for the inaugural trip.

"I got back and forth a lot, and I have to leave on Sunday typically to make it to work on Monday," she said.

Freeman was heading home to Portland after visiting with her sister on Bainbridge Island. She had moved from her seat on the train and headed to a dining car to work, which is where she felt the train "jolt."

"I kind of grabbed the table, and then we lurched, and I looked for anything that I could grab. And I kind of grabbed the table edge. I didn't know what we slammed into, but it was this horrible impact," Freeman said. "I got flung across the aisle and onto the floor. I was trying to grab the bottoms of the tables as I went by, but I was going back and forth across the train car like a pinball in a pinball machine." 

Scott Claggett, who was a fellow passenger, was heading to Portland for a work meeting. He says it was his first time taking Amtrak and wasn't aware it was Train 501's inaugural run. Claggett spent the first part of his morning investigating the train cars and wound up in a lounge to work.

"About a minute after I set up, I felt the train was kind of leaning to the left. I felt like that wasn't a good feeling. And the second I discovered it wasn't a good feeling is when my car completely twisted," Claggett said. "Glass, people were all coming towards me flying in the air."

Two Victims Were Longtime Rail Advocates 

Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, two longtime rail advocates, were among those killed in the train derailment. Willhoite was identified by his employer, Pierce Transit. The agency released a statement saying he was "always deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency."

Willhoite was a member of the enthusiasts' group, All Aboard Washington, as was Hamre. The Rail Passengers Association released a statement confirming Hamre's death. He was a board member of the organization. 

"Jim was among the country's most respected and effective rail advocates and a good friend and mentor to me," wrote RPA President Jim Matthews. "I will miss his counsel and our community is poorer for his loss."

Amtrak Statement

In a statement, Amtrak said the train that derailed was Train 501, offering service from Seattle to Portland. Amtrak said people with questions about friends or family on the train should call 800-523-9101. 

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.

It left Seattle around 6 a.m., according to an Amtrak schedule, and was due in Portland about 3 1/2 hours later.

All southbound lanes of I-5 are closed south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and motorists are being warned to avoid the area.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.