Multiple fatalities reported after Amtrak train derails in Washington state, spilling onto busy highway

Several people were killed after an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state about 40 miles south of Seattle on Dec. 18. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Several people were killed and scores more injured when an Amtrak train on its inaugural trip on a new route derailed south of Seattle on Monday morning while crossing a bridge above a busy highway, authorities said.

Officials said 13 cars jumped the tracks. The Associated Press reported the derailment killed at least six people, citing an anonymous U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation. Local officials haven’t confirmed the death toll.

A total of 77 people were sent to hospitals, according to CHI Franciscan Health, which operates numerous hospitals in Western Washington. Some patients are in critical conditions, a spokesman said.

“On behalf of everyone at Amtrak, we are deeply saddened by all that has happened today. We will do everything in our power to support our passengers and crew and their families,”Amtrak President and Co-Chief Executive Richard Anderson said.

The scene was a jumble of derailed train cars and at least two crushed vehicles that were passing on the highway below. At least one car from the train somehow ended up under the bridge. Another train car dangled from the bridge, piercing the roof of the train car beneath the bridge. One of the two train engines was spun around on Interstate 5 below the bridge, at least three other cars were clear of the track bed, and two derailed cars remained on the rail bed.

Though authorities said no one died on the highway, at least five vehicles were badly damaged. One tractor-trailer pulling an orange Hapag-Lloyd container had part of its cab crushed when the train descended as it was emerging from beneath the bridge.

Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Brooke Bova confirmed five vehicles on the ground and two tractor-trailers, where hit. The incident occurred about 7:33 a.m. local time.

“There are a lot of working parts here,” Bova said during a media briefing. She did not confirm the number of fatalities, but said authorities are not doing rescue operations at this time. “It is still evolving right now.

“We are waiting for [the National Transportation Safety Board] and Amtrak to come here so they can finish their investigation. It is safe to say this is going well into the night.”

At an afternoon news conference, Gay Banks Olson, assistant superintendent at Amtrak, said the railroad’s first priority is to take care of passengers, employees and relatives affected. She said 77 passengers and seven crew members were aboard the train. Each of the passenger coach cars has 36 seats.

“It is horrible that this happened to these passengers, but we are very grateful that there weren’t more people involved,” Banks Olson said.  “We are going to do everything we can in the next few days and weeks to support these passengers in their families.”

Authorities are not releasing any numbers on victims or confirming if anyone on the highway was injured or deceased. Bova said they don’t know if anyone is left on board because the 13 train cars have yet to be stabilized. Officials plan another briefing later Monday night.

At a news conference at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C., board member Bella Dinh-Zarr had few details about the crash or potential causes, but said agency officials would know more once their team of 20 investigators arrives at the scene late Monday night.

Those investigators will include at least a dozen specialists in train operations, mechanics, tracks, signal systems, human performance, and survival factors. The lead investigator is Ted Turpin, who also worked on the 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, and was the lead investigator for the Long Island Rail Road train crash at New York’s Atlantic Terminal early this year.

“We’ll have more information after we arrive on-scene and start the investigation,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Dinh-Zarr said it was too early to determine the speed that the train was going when the derailment occurred, but acknowledged that speed is one of the first factors that they will be looking at once investigators arrive on the scene. They will also be assessing what crash-avoidance technology existed on the tracks or on the train, and whether that technology functioned properly.

Dinh-Zarr said NTSB did not have an official count of the number of fatalities on the train.

“You’ve probably heard a lot of different numbers reported by different news outlets, and we leave that to local authorities to report,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Chris Karnes, a passenger, said the train was approaching a curve at a high rate of speed before it came off the tracks.

“It seemed like we were reaching sort of a bend in the tracks and all of a sudden we were slammed into the seats in front of us,” he told CBS News. “And then the car careened down an embankment and came to a stop. After that happened we could hear and feel the cars crumpling and breaking apart.”

Karnes, who was in a car toward the front of the train, said he and other passengers had to kick out a window to get out. Passengers had visible injuries — “cuts, people bleeding,” he said. “I did see one person who was laying on the ground and not moving.”

He said military police, firefighters and medics flooded the scene. In his rail car, he said the passenger load was “relatively light.” But authorities said some of the cars derailed in the woods and rescuers were using chain saws to get to passengers.

An Amtrak train derailed in Washington state about 40 miles south of Seattle on Dec. 18. (The Washington Post)

The cause of the derailment was unclear, but the train was entering a curve as it made its way south from Seattle to Portland. Though the train had been tested on the track, owned by Seattle’s SoundTransit system, Monday’s run was the first time it made the trip with a full load of 78 passengers and their baggage.

In a tweet, President Trump said, “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the train accident in DuPont, Washington. Thank you to all of our wonderful First Responders who are on the scene. We are currently monitoring here at the White House.”

While the cause of the crash was far from certain, a 2015 fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia was caused when the engineer sent it into a curve at twice the speed limit.

Those who died were believed to be on the train and not on the highway. Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said the highway will be closed for a long period, calling it a “pretty horrific” crash. He said some of the train cars were in precarious positions and that would need to be shored up before the highway could open.

Bova told media at the scene that people should stay away from the area. The southbound lanes of I-5 will be closed for the rest of the day and closures could extend to a few days. The investigation on the highway could last a few days, she said.

State police are providing resources and getting supplies to the scene, the spokeswoman said.

Gov. Jay Inslee said on Twitter: “Today’s tragic incident in Pierce County is a serious and ongoing emergency. Trudi and I are holding in our hearts everyone on board, and are praying for the many injured.”

“They are our top priority, and I know first responders are doing everything to ensure everyone has the care they need,” Inslee said. “Everyone should avoid traveling I-5, and WSDOT is working to open alternative routes through the area during the emergency response. This morning I spoke with my cabinet officials, and we are in touch with Amtrak who we know are working to provide as much information as possible.”

“This catastrophic derailment is horrific,” Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan said.

The train is a new line for Amtrak, running from Seattle to Portland, and is meant to cut the travel time between those cities.

The Amtrak Cascades service that launched Monday is part of an expansion of Amtrak intercity passenger rail service that includes station upgrades and expansions and the addition of new locomotives. The project is an investment of nearly $800 million in federally funded passenger rail service improvements, according to information from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Washington and Oregon jointly operate the Amtrak Cascades intercity passenger service. The trains share the tracks with freight trains and are authorized to travel at top speeds of 79 mph, according to the project’s highlights. The new service would save 10 minutes in travel time between Seattle to Portland.

More than 60,000 vehicles a day use that area of southbound I-5, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Rodika Tollefson contributed to this report from DuPont, Wash. Martine Powers and Faiz Siddiqui contributed from Washington, D.C.

The Amtrak Cascades train has daily service between Seattle and Portland, departing from Seattle at 6 a.m. local time. Amtrak’s train status says “status currently unavailable due to a service disruption. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL for more information.”

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