DUPONT, Wash. — A passenger train on a newly opened high-speed Amtrak route jumped the tracks on an overpass south of Tacoma on Monday, hurtling rail cars onto a busy highway, killing at least three people and injuring more than 75 others, officials said.
The derailment of Amtrak Train No. 501, making the inaugural run of a new service from Seattle to Portland, dropped a 132-ton locomotive in the southbound lanes of the Northwest’s busiest travel corridor.
Two passenger coaches also fell partly in the traffic lanes, and two other coaches were left dangling off the bridge, one of them wedged against a tractor-trailer. On the highway below lay seven crumpled cars and trucks, and huge chunks of concrete that were ripped away from the damaged overpass.
All 12 of the train’s coaches and one of its two engines derailed. The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigative team to the scene.
An official briefed on the investigation said preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track about 40 miles south of Seattle, the Associated Press reported. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately clear what object was hit or how it got on the rails.
The train was going 81.1 miles per hour moments before the derailment, according to transitdocs.com, a website that maps Amtrak train locations and speeds using data from the railroad’s train tracker app. The maximum speed along the stretch of track is 79 miles per hour, according to information posted online by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“It felt like the end of the world, and I was standing amid the wreckage,” said Emma Shafer, 20, a modern dance student who was napping aboard the train with her shoes off when it derailed.
She found herself in a coach dangling at a steep angle toward the highway — the man behind her yelling, his legs pinned, while a parent trapped with a baby in a restroom banged on the door for help getting out.
The crash occurred at 7:33 a.m. near Dupont, Wash., about midway between Tacoma and Olympia, according to a federal official briefed on the crash.
Investigators are still going through the wreckage and could not say for certain how many people have died. “It appears that all of the fatalities are contained in the rail cars that went into the woods,” said Detective Ed Troyer a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, adding that rescue workers were using chain saws to try to reach victims in those cars.
CHI Franciscan Health, a regional hospital network, said that more than 75 people were taken to hospitals, including four who were classified “level red,” reflecting the most severe injuries. Some of those injured were in vehicles on the highway and not on the train.
The train carried 77 passengers and seven crew members, said Gay Banks Olson, assistant superintendent of Northwest operations for Amtrak.
Daniel Konzelman told the AP he was one of thousands of commuters driving on Interstate 5 when the emergency response training he learned as an Eagle Scout kicked in. He and a friend pulled over after the train cars landed on the highway, and rushed to help.
Some train cars had their roofs ripped off or were turned upside down. Others were turned sideways on the bridge. Konzelman, 24, and his friend clambered into train cars to look for victims.
Some people were pinned under the train and others appeared to be dead. If people could move and seemed stable, Konzelman said he helped them climb out of the train. If they looked seriously hurt, he tried to offer comfort by talking to them to calm them down.
President Trump wrote on Twitter that the crash on Amtrak’s Cascades service showed the need for increased infrastructure spending.
“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,” Trump wrote. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
In reality, the train and the line it traveled on were the products of just such investment.
Backed by the state of Washington, Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, used $180 million from the 2009 federal stimulus package to buy an old, 14.5-mile stretch of track and upgrade it for high-speed passenger service.
The project, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, was devised to allow Cascades trains to stop using a more roundabout route that they shared with freight trains, making for faster, more reliable travel.
The state also spent $58 million from the stimulus bill on eight new locomotives, specifically for that service. Washington and Oregon jointly own the Cascades service, and Amtrak operates it.
Although state transit officials said the new route would have a top speed of 79 miles per hour, it was not clear if a slower limit would be in place where the tracks curved and took the bridge across Interstate 5.