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Amtrak train derails; multiple killed

Posted at 3:02 PM, Dec 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-18 15:02:45-05

DUPONT, WA (RNN) - As they continue their investigation of the Washington state Amtrak train crash that killed at least three people Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board says the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone.

The information about the train's speed was retrieved from a data recorder in the rear locomotive.

Most of the route was graded for a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour, but the speed limit on the curve where the crash occurred is 30 mph, said Rachelle Cunningham with Sound Transit, which owns the tracks.

It's too early to be able to tell why the train was traveling at that speed, NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said in a press conference late Monday.

The NTSB has not yet had the opportunity to interview the train's engineer and crew and were unaware if they knew the curve had a 30 mph limit.

State transport person Barbara LaBoe told the Seattle Times that warning signs were in place two miles before the lowered limit.

Technology that can slow or stop a speeding train, called positive train control, was not activated on the stretch of track where the train derailed, according to Amtrak President Richard Anderson, who spoke with reporters via conference call.

The technology was installed in the segment of tracks but wasn't operational yet, according to a spokesperson with Sound Transit.

Three people have been confirmed dead following the derailment. All were aboard the train at the time of the crash, said spokesman Ed Troyer with the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.

Dozens of passengers and motorists were also injured when train cars toppled off of a bridge onto Interstate 5 below early Monday.

Washington State Police spokeswoman Brooke Bova said 13 train cars derailed, and an additional five vehicles and two 18-wheelers were impacted on the interstate. Bova said officials were also concerned about leaking fuel at the crash site.

At a Monday night press briefing, Capt. Dan Hall with the Washington State Patrol said 19 people - including motorists and people aboard the train - were transported from the scene uninjured and 72 people were transported and evaluated.

Of those 72, 10 are in serious condition, four suffered moderate injuries and 9 had minor injuries. Of the 10 in serious condition, one had severe injuries that required a life flight to an emergency facility.

“Something went very, very wrong and there are some questions we will demand to be answered,” said Rep. Denny Heck. “It’s a nightmarish image.”

Monday was the first day of service for Amtrak Cascades, a new high-speed service, on the new route called Bypass of Point Defiance. The route was moved inland through more populated areas. The previous coastal route often encountered single-track tunnels that freight trains also shared, slowing down service. The high-speed Cascade trains can travel up to 79 mph, cutting travel time between Seattle and Portland, OR, by 25 minutes.

CNN played a recording of the communication between the conductor and dispatch right after the accident:

Dispatch: “Hey guys what happened.”

Conductor: “We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there … and we went on the ground.”

Dispatch: “Okay, is everybody okay?”

Conductor: “I’m still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and it’s down onto the highway ... As soon as I know exactly where all of my train is, I’ll let you know."

According to several local reports, Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson was against the new bypass project and expressed his concerns when WSDOT workers came to Lakewood to give an update on the high-speed rail plan.

KOMO quoted the mayor saying, "Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens."

The multi-year, state-led project cost $181 million, a release from Amtrak stated.

Chris Karnes was on the train when it derailed.  He’s a member of the Pierce County Transit Advisory Board.

“We went down an embankment to the right of the tracks.  The other cars all derailed. The only thing left that was on the track was the rear locomotive,” he said. “After the accident, we had to kick out the emergency window and climb down the embankment in order to get help for the injured passenger.”

A witness described the scene of the derailment as "sobering" with cars crushed under the fallen train.

"It’s sobering to say the least. You just knew when you saw it that something horrible had happened," witness Danae Orlob said. "There were crushed cars underneath. There was an insane amount of fire trucks and ambulances heading towards us."

Witness Greg Mukai was on his way to work when the traffic on I-5 came to a sudden stop and he could see the train dangling from an overpass. He said people got out of their cars to help, including "lots of military personnel." The incident took place near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In its Monday night statement, Amtrak said a Passenger Reception Center is working with families of people who were on the train and listed a hotline, 800-523-9101, that family members with questions can call. 

"We will do everything in our power to support these passengers, our employees and their families.  We are committed to taking care of them and providing the highest level of assistance possible during their time of need," the statement said.

Officials said Monday night there were 80 paying passengers, two Amtrak employees riding on their free passes and five on-duty crew members aboard the train at the time of the incident. 

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