At least three people died when an Amtrak train on its inaugural run of a new route derailed onto Interstate 5 Monday morning, spilling train cars onto the freeway near Mounts Road and blocking the southbound lanes of the artery between Thurston and Pierce counties.
The train departed from Seattle at 6 a.m. and crashed about 7:30 a.m. Monday. At least 50 people were hospitalized, more than a dozen with critical or serious injuries, authorities told The Associated Press.
There were 12 train cars and two engines involved in the derailment. Thirteen of them jumped the track, State Patrol Trooper Brooke Bova said.
Seven vehicles – two of which were semi-tractor trucks – were hit when the train fell onto the freeway.
The train had 77 passengers and seven crew members on board, Bova said.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency shortly after the train derailed.
A dangerous rescue
“We performed extrication using the jaws of life to remove the injured,” said DuPont Fire chief Larry Creekmore on Monday afternoon. “There are three confirmed fatalities that we know of and we transported over 100 patients.”
Jay Sumerlin with West Pierce Fire Department said the dangling rail cars were “very precarious and very dangerous” for rescue crews.
“We had firefighters putting themselves in a very dangerous place and they did a great job searching all of the cars,” Sumerlin said.
He said one of the train cars was carrying 350 gallons of diesel fuel that was leaking. Amtrak and the Department of Ecology will need to come up with a plan to deal with that spill, Sumerlin said.
He said emergency crews regularly train for unfathomable situations, even ones like a train derailment over Interstate 5.
“Everyone goes, ‘That’s not going to happen,’” Summerlin said. “Here we are. It’s exactly what happened.”
Freeway remains closed
Doug Adamson, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said Monday evening that southbound I-5 in DuPont will likely be closed at least through Tuesday morning.
He said drivers should expect significant delays throughout the region while southbound I-5 is closed since alternate routes will be burdened by increased traffic. People are encouraged to consider delaying or canceling trips through the area, he said in a news release. Travelers should monitor the WSDOT web page or @wsdot_tacoma for updates.
An estimated 60,000 drivers use that section of I-5 daily.
Several detours were put in place for southbound traffic, including one from Center Drive in DuPont through Joint Base Lewis McChord and over to state Route 510, and another over the Narrows Bridge and south through Shelton.
Northbound traffic continues to flow through the crash site.
The 911 call
A short audio clip from the train was released by Broadcastify, capturing the dramatic first moments after the derailment.
“Amtrak 501, emergency, emergency, emergency. We are on the ground,” the conductor said. “We are on the bridge (inaudible) on the freeway. We need EMS ASAP. It looks like they’re already starting to show up.”
A voice then asks what happened.
“We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there ... and we went on the ground,” the conductor said.
A family reunification center has been set up at DuPont City Hall. Amtrak has set up an incident information number for family members to call: 800-523-9101.
Traveling a new route
The high-speed train was making its first public run on newly constructed tracks when it derailed. The new route was designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route out of Tacoma along Puget Sound that’s bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.
A U.S. official who was briefed on the derailment said preliminary signs indicate the Amtrak train may have struck something on the track before derailing. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The train was reportedly traveling more than 80 miles per hour when it derailed. The state Department of Transportation posted information about the $180.7 million project online that says the maximum speed along that stretch of track is 79 mph.
Sound Transit, the public transit system for the Seattle area, owns the track and oversaw construction of the upgrades. Agency spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says extensive testing was done before the opening of the system Monday.
Amtrak and the National Traffic Safety Board are taking a lead in the investigation, Bova said. It could take days for the investigation and cleanup of the derailment to be completed, she said.
As of 4 p.m., Washington State Patrol chief John Batiste said authorities were still awaiting the arrival of investigators from the National Traffic Safety Board.
He said state patrol and Washington State Department of Transportation crews had already begun a preliminary investigation into the derailment. Once the train has been removed, the bridge will be inspected, Batiste said.
Amtrak Cascade trains #504 and #509 were canceled, with no alternative transportation available, Amtrak said in a news release.
“On behalf of everybody at Amtrak, we are deeply saddened about what happened here this morning,” said Gay Banks Olson, assistant superintendent of operations with Amtrak. “Amtrak is going to do everything possible to take care of the passengers, employees and families affected by the event.”
Wounded scattered to area hospitals
The majority of the people on the train were taken to area hospitals at least for minor treatment. Three male patients were eventually transferred for further care to UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. One male was critical and the other two were in serious, but stable condition.
Madigan Army Medical Center received the first 19 patients from the train derailment, and 12 remained in its care as of 3 p.m.
Ten of the injured were at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, hospital spokesman Chris Thomas said. A room was set up for family and friends, he said.
Seven patients also were taken to Capital Medical Center in west Olympia. Two were in critical condition and were transferred to a higher level of care.
Other patients were taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, and St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, according to The News Tribune. MultiCare Health also reported that it had patients at three of its hospitals: 14 at Good Samaritan, five at Allenmore, and three at Tacoma General.
American Red Cross Northwest Washington mobilized volunteers in Washington and Oregon to help passengers and their families. Colin Downey, a Red Cross spokesman, said the agency was providing water, blankets and coffee to people at family reunification centers in DuPont and Portland.
“We’re going to be moving in emotional support as well,” Downey said.
First person accounts
Chris Karnes was one of those on board the train.
“At a certain point the train wobbled for a second, and the next thing we knew we were being sort of catapulted into the seats in front of us,” he said. “There were crashing and crunching noises, the lights went out. There was glass shattering, everyone’s personal belongings flew to the front of the car and people were screaming.”
Aleksander Kristiansen, a 24-year-old exchange student at the University of Washington from Copenhagen, was headed to Portland for a day trip.
“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.
After the crash, 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.”
A man who was driving alongside the train told The Seattle Times he and his friend rushed to help the victims. Daniel Konzelman says some of the train cars had their roofs ripped off or they were tipped upside down. He says they climbed into train cars and found injured passengers, some who were pinned underneath the train and others who appeared to be dead.
Konzelman said that if victims could move and seemed stable, he helped them climb out of the train. If they appeared seriously hurt, he tried to offer comfort by talking to them to calm them down.
The 24-year-old said he’s an Eagle Scout with first-aid and emergency response training.
The mayor of Lakewood had earlier 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.
Mary Chancey, who lives in DuPont, said the community feared a derailment on the new route.
“Nobody in DuPont wanted this (the new train route),” she said. “This is exactly what we were afraid would happen. This or somebody getting hit by a train.”
President Donald Trump used the derailment to call for a boost to infrastructure spending.
In a tweet sent about three hours after the crash, Trump says it shows “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
Trump is expected to release a framework for increased infrastructure spending in January, relying on a mix of federal, local and private spending.