Rudolf Wetzel says he survived a communist detention camp in Yugoslavia, service in the U.S. military and a career with Los Angeles police, but his worst brush with death was being thrown from the Amtrak Cascades 501 train that derailed last December.
Wetzel, 81, and attorney James Vucinovich announced Thursday they filed a lawsuit against Amtrak in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. The case seeks a yet-undetermined dollar amount. Chances are, Wetzel will collect some share of $295 million that federal law sets as the maximum Amtrak payout per mass-casualty incident.
This latest suit alleges Amtrak allowed the train to run despite an electrical malfunction that “de-linked” the front locomotive from its rear locomotive, which supplied pushing power — adding another theory to claims in other victims’ lawsuits and news interviews.
The southbound train slowed and made its station stops that morning, but the lawsuit claims the de-linking “made the rear unit unavailable for additional braking effect” during the Dec. 18 emergency as the engineer in the front locomotive approached the curve.
The train was going 79 mph into a 30 mph curve, the National Transportation Safety Board says in preliminary findings. The engineer told the NTSB he knew of the curve but didn’t see an advance-warning sign two miles before the 30 mph zone, the agency says.
Three passengers died and 62 people were injured in the morning wreck near DuPont, on Dec. 18, 2017, when the train flew off the curve, sending rail cars onto Interstate 5. Wetzel, sleeping in the third passenger car, was traveling from Seattle to his farm near Centralia, he said.
“I thought the train ran into a mine or something, an explosion,” he recalled at a news conference Thursday in Seattle. “I was disoriented. I could feel moisture. I felt gravel with my hand, and wet.”
Wetzel considered himself lucky to land in a small gully, so as not to be crushed by pieces of the train. He heard the rear locomotive screech and thought it might scurry along the ground, so he crawled several feet. Eventually, someone helped him to a tree stump where he sat until military personnel got him into an ambulance, he said.
Wetzel spent three months in a back brace. He’s recovering, but said he can’t chop wood, ride a tractor or walk on uneven ground.
He still, however, takes the train.
“I think I’ve ridden the train four times since the event,” he told reporters. He considers the train safer and less stressful than driving I-5. “I was sort of let down by the Amtrak people not taking care of business,” he said.
Several other lawsuits have been filed — including one by Garrick Freeman, an Amtrak conductor who was familiarizing himself with the new train corridor south of Tacoma. It could take a year before depositions or testimony is taken, to shed more light on Amtrak operations and supervisors’ decisions, Vucinovich said.
The railroad has declined to comment on lawsuits, but new CEO Richard Anderson has repeatedly apologized for this and other tragedies — while telling Congress he might even suspend passenger service in corridors that aren’t equipped with satellite-based positive train control (PTC) systems by the end of 2018.
Amtrak is testing such networks now in the Tacoma-DuPont area. PTC is already operating on BNSF Railway freight trains and Sounder commuter trains in the Puget Sound region.