Cranes are being brought to the site of an Amtrak train that derailed Monday morning as it barreled toward an Interstate 5 overpass near Olympia, spilling onto the freeway and killing several people, officials said.
The Washington State Patrol confirmed at least three people died in the crash, but The Associated Press reported at least six deaths, citing an unnamed U.S. official. Dozens of injured victims were taken to area hospitals, some in critical condition.
On the freeway, five vehicles and two semis were damaged by the falling train cars and debris, but no one was killed, officials said.
The cranes will be used to stabilize the wreckage, including one car that was dangling precariously from the overpass. The southbound lanes of I-5 were completely blocked and would remain closed at least through Tuesday morning.
It’s unclear how fast the train was traveling, but it was supposed to slow dramatically before entering the curve where the crash occurred. Aerial images show all 12 rail cars and one of two engines jumped the tracks.
A passenger on the train, Chris Karnes, said they seemed to be traveling normally during the inaugural trip of a new higher-speed service intended to shave 10 minutes off the trip from Seattle to Portland. Then he felt the jolt.
“It was a split second between that and being launched into the seats in front of us,” he said Monday.
There were about 80 passengers and seven crew members on the train when it derailed, Amtrak officials said.
The speed limit there is 30 mph, a Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman said. At some location before the overpass, the train had reportedly reached full speed of 79 mph.
In this stretch of track, a train engineer faces the challenge of decelerating in a short space, when approaching the curve and bypass, said John Hiatt, a longtime private investigator in train safety disputes.
“A downward grade coming into that curve, you’ve got that working against you. You’ve got to make a pretty good estimate of how to get that down from 81 to 30,” Hiatt said of the track, located near Mounts Road outside of DuPont. “From what I’ve heard, there were several complaints by engineers about this.”
An Amtrak conductor can be heard describing the derailment and requesting help on audio of the BNSF dispatch channel.
“Emergency, emergency, emergency,” the conductor can be heard saying. “We are on the ground.”
Bob Chipkevich, a former NTSB director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations, said it looks like it was a high-speed derailment based on the television images he’s seen of the accident.
“Like an automobile, the faster you are going the more violent it can be when you leave the track, cars are strewn farther from the track and more cars are derailed,” said Chipkevich.
The Associated Press, citing an unnamed U.S. official, reported that at least six people were killed in the crash. The train’s precarious position complicated search efforts by emergency responders.
All train cars and vehicles on I-5 had been searched by Monday afternoon.
Daniel Konzelman was driving to work in Olympia with his girlfriend, Alicia Hoverson, when they saw the train zipping by them along I-5 before the bridge. He said they were traveling about 60 mph. Then he came upon the crash scene and pulled over to help. He said people were pinned under train cars and many people had head wounds and broken bones.
“There’s not a lot you can do with somebody pinned beneath the train. I talked to them and tried to to calm them down and comfort them,” he said. “I just told him, man, you’re looking so good … you’re doing great, just relax. You might be here for a little while. Make yourself comfortable. … I rubbed his back and held his hand. I asked him what his kids’ names were and what his wife’s name was.”
Jay Sumerlin, a battalion chief with West Pierce Fire & Rescue, said firefighters used the Jaws of Life, air chisels, ladders and a variety of saws to gain access into the crushed rail cars to pull people out, he said. Hazardous materials crews are also working to contain up to 350 gallons of fuel that leaked from the “power car,” located behind the locomotive, Sumerlin said.
“It’s shocking … It’s actually kind of surreal,” he said of the derailment.
His department has conducted tabletop exercises involving “train cars dangling over the freeway.”
People say, “Oh, that’s never going to happen. And here we are,” Sumerlin said.
State Patrol Chief John Batiste offered his condolences to families impacted by the derailment, calling it “a very tragic situation.”
The patrol’s criminal investigations unit has completed its work, though other agencies are continuing their own investigations, Trooper Brooke Bova said late Monday afternoon. Once those are completed, large cranes — some already on site — will begin stabilizing the rail cars, she said. The effort is expected to go through the night and likely extend into the morning commute, Bova said.
Gay Banks Olson, an assistant superintendent of operations with Amtrak, said investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene.
Olson declined to say what caused the derailment.
Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told news media that, in addition to casualties on the train, motorists had been injured, but not killed. Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency in response to the derailment.
A total of 77 people were sent to hospitals in Pierce and Thurston counties, according to CHI Franciscan Health, which operates numerous hospitals in Western Washington. Four of the injured were said to be “level red” patients, with critical injuries.
The injured were taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, Tacoma General Hospital, Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Allenmore Hospital in Tacoma, Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup and Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma.
Three men with injuries were transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. One of them is in critical condition and the others are in serious, but stable condition. Three people are being treated at Tacoma General Hospital and are in serious condition. At St. Peter Hospital, 10 patients were admitted, three requiring surgery but none suffered critical injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Twelve patients were seen and discharged from Good Samaritan Hospital and two were transferred to others hospitals. At Allenmore, two patients were discharged, one was transferred and two remained as of Monday evening. Four patients remained at Tacoma General as of 6:30 p.m.
The train’s conductor and engineer were disorientated but survived the crash, said Detective Chris Bailey, of the Steilacoom Public Safety Department, who was one of the first responders on the scene.
The leading 13 cars of the 14-car train jumped the tracks, and on the freeway five vehicles and two semis were damaged, according to the State Patrol.
Amtrak said it was train No. 501 on an inaugural run, which left Seattle for Portland at 6 a.m., that derailed.
According to WSDOT, the train was running down a new bypass created to avoid slow curves and “single track tunnels on the BNSF Railway main line tracks near Point Defiance and along southern Puget Sound.”
The project rerouted passenger trains to an inland route on an existing rail line that runs along the west side of I-5 through south Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont and then reconnects back to the BNSF Railway main line near Nisqually on the east side of I-5.
Monday morning was the first time Amtrak trains used the new Point Defiance Bypass route. It was the culmination of a $181 million project that began in 2010. A new Amtrak station also opened in Tacoma. The change would reduce the length of the trip by 10 minutes and separate Amtrak trains from freight lines that frequently cause delays on the Point Defiance route.
As part of a recent improvement project, new rails, ties and ballast had been put on the line between Lakewood and Nisqually, according to a WSDOT document. Improvements to the line enabled trains to travel up to 79 mph when traveling to Mounts Road, which is just north of the derailment site.
Anthony Raimondi, of Gig Harbor, was riding round trip on the inaugural run because he worked for Amtrak for 17 years and loves trains.
He was in the business section near the front of the train when he felt the car leaning. Then everything went dark, Raimondi said.
Another man in the same car punched open a window and the two of them helped each other climb out the window and down off the train, he said.
They then made their way out by climbing under the train, he said.
“I got out and I’m very lucky except for a little bump on my leg,” he said.
Last week, Joint Base Lewis-McChord posted a warning on Twitter saying, “trains traveling about 80 miles per hour begin running on the tracks along the JBLM I-5 corridor on Dec. 18. Never stop on the tracks.”
WSDOT doesn’t have any theory yet about what caused the derailment, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the WSDOT’s rail division.
There are no switches or road crossings in the immediate area, she said. However, the corridor in general passes through many neighborhoods and roads.
“We’re still trying to figure out the cause,” Matkin said.
However, an official who was briefed on the investigation but not authorized to discuss it publicly told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that preliminary signs indicate the Amtrak train may have struck something on the track before going off the rails. No other evidence Monday has indicated anything was on the tracks.
A go-team with the National Transportation Safety Board is heading to the Seattle area this evening. “We are scheduled to arrive a little after 10 p.m.,” said Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the agency. The team, of 15 or 20 people, will include personnel from NTSB’s family-assistance, rail, media-relations and human-performance programs, Weiss said.
President Trump tweeted Monday morning that the derailment “shows more than ever” why his soon-to-be-released infrastructure plan should be adopted. He also tweeted that his “thoughts and prayers” and “deepest sympathies” were with everyone involved and thanked first responders who were at the scene.
It was unclear whether Trump was aware that this stretch of railway had recently been rebuilt.
The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2017
‘There’s a lot of blood on their faces’
Chris Karnes, a transit and train advocate from Tacoma, was heading to Portland to do some Christmas shopping with his boyfriend. He said he was in the train’s third or fourth car.
“Our new Amtrak station was opening up in Tacoma, so I wanted to be on the first train out,” he said.
Karnes said the train seemed to be traveling normally. Then he felt the train jolt.
“It was a split second between that and being launched into the seats in front of us. Those really cushioned the blow for us,” he said.
The train car Karnes was in “careened off an embankment,” he said.
“We could hear crumpling and crashing and screaming from people. The lights went out,” he said.
Karnes said he and other passengers had to kick out a window to get out of the train and jump into some bushes onto an embankment that led down to Interstate 5.
“There was one person who was injured in our car, and I was sent to go find help for them. They were breathing but not conscious,” he said.
One man was lying on the ground on the embankment, Karnes said. “It looked like he might have been thrown from the train.”
Then, Karnes remembers seeing emergency responders rushing to a train car that had flipped over onto Interstate 5.
Karnes, who spoke to a reporter while in a medical tent, said he saw multiple people carried out on stretchers with neck braces.
“There are people who seem to have concussions. There’s a lot of blood on their faces,” he said.
Karnes said his back was hurting, but he was “fine in comparison with some of the people here.”
Emma Shafer, a 20-year-old student at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, was on the train heading to Vancouver, Wash., for her winter break when the train derailed.
There were about 12 people in her car, including a family, and they all banded together “as time went on” during the trip, she said.
Shafer said she was able to escape the car by climbing over seats to get around pieces of the train that were blocking the way out. While exiting, she said she saw someone pinned under the train and severely hurt.
The family made it out, she said. She suffered minor injuries, a hurt ear and elbow.
“It was really disorientating,” Shafer said. “I felt dizzy and a little bit sick.”
Maria Hetland was driving to work on northbound Interstate 5 when traffic suddenly slowed.
“As we were coming up the hill I rolled my window down and saw the train,” she said. “It was awful.”
Hetland said cars had stopped on the freeway and she could see people walking around on the road. Some people were sitting on the roadside draped in blankets.
“I didn’t see anybody climbing out of the train,” Hetland said.
As she passed, Hetland took a few photos.
One train car was beneath the bridge sitting parallel to the roadway, Hetland said. Another train car was dangling from a rail bridge that crosses I-5 horizontally.
“I don’t know how that train fell off that bridge. There’s a whole railing, a wall,” she said. “I don’t know how it crashed through the wall.”
Hetland said she could see some steam or smoke, but did not see any fire. She continued driving.
“I pulled over later and had a little meltdown and looked at my pictures,” she said. “It’s really upsetting. It’s like something from a movie.”
Hetland said she had seen work being done on the tracks over the summer.
Lucas Ledford said he passed the scene of the wreck as he drove south on I-5 on his way to work in Tumwater.
“There was a [train] car that was coming off the overpass,” said Ledford, 30. “It was a passenger train, it slammed into a semi-truck …”
Emergency responders Monday afternoon continued shuttling in and out of the derailment scene.
Officials in yellow vests could be seen on the rail overpass just ahead of where the Amtrak train left its tracks.
Other workers in emergency vests appeared to be looking at the tracks behind the train. That portion of track runs roughly parallel to I-5 and curves left just before the overpass.
Seattle Times staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Mike Baker, Lewis Kamb, David Gutman, Mike Lindblom, Hal Bernton, Sara Jean Green, Christine Willmsen and Jessica Lee contributed to this report.