DUPONT, Wash. — An Amtrak train that derailed south of Seattle and killed at least three people was going 81 mph moments before it entered a curve where the recommended speed tops out at 30 mph, according to Amtrak and state transportation figures.
The train's speed and the posted speed limit are likely to be key points for federal accident investigators, who are trying to determine why the train — on its inaugural run — flew off the track and caused several rail cars to plunge off a bridge overpass and onto a traffic-clogged interstate.
At least five vehicles on I-5 were struck by derailed train cars tumbling down from the tracks above, Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ed Troyer said.
"We have multiple fatals on the train, no fatals on the roadway," Troyer said. Authorities say there are three confirmed deaths. City of DuPont Fire Chief Larry Creekmore also says more than 100 patients were transported for treatment. Hospital officials say at least two people are in critical condition and 11 others are seriously injured.
Moments before the derailment the train was going 81.1 mph, according to transitdocs.com, which maps train speeds using data from Amtrak’s train tracker app. A track chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows the maximum speed drops from 79 mph to 30 mph for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross I-5.
Authorities say 77 passengers and seven crew members were on board.
In an audio tape of the emergency call released by KUOW public radio, one of the train's personnel describes the initial confusion.
"Emergency, emergency. We are on the ground," the unidentified train employee says. "We need EMS ASAP."
The dispatcher responds, "Hey guys. What happened?"
The response: "We were coming around the corner to take the bridge . . . and we went on the ground . . . We got cars everywhere and down on to the highway."
Amtrak Train 501 left Seattle at 6 a.m. local time as a new and controversial, high-speed service to Portland designed to avoid sharp curves, freight traffic and other obstacles that could slow the trip.
The state Transportation Department said federal funds were used to upgrade the tracks for passenger train use and that the Federal Railroad Administration had monitored the work.
"Today was the first day of public use of the tracks after weeks of inspection and testing," the department said in a statement.
The new improved tracks were not welcomed by some local officials. The city of Lakewood filed a lawsuit in 2013 to fight against the Point Defiance Bypass, arguing state transportation officials hadn’t done a sufficient environmental assessment. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out by a judge, but bitterness remains.
“It’s virtually inevitable that someone is going to get killed that wouldn’t get killed otherwise,” Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said at a Dec. 4 meeting to discuss the opening of the line.
Anthony Raimondi, a retired Amtrak employee, was riding in business class Monday and suffered a bruised leg. He said the train rounded a curve when it began to wobble. Then it fell on its side.
"It just seemed to be going around the corner very fast and tipping over," he said.
The lights went out and another passenger kicked out a window. He said most people in his car weren't hurt.
"I feel very lucky," he said.
Amtrak train derails, dangles over interstate in Washington state
President Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying the crash shows the crucial need for infrastructure improvements.
"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 tweeted. "Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!"
Later, he tweeted condolences to those involved and thanked first responders for their efforts.
Interstate 5 southbound near DuPont, about 50 miles south of Seattle, was closed after the derailment "and will be for some time," Troyer said. He said the derailment took place at about 7:40 a.m. local time.
Dozens of first-responders swarmed the scene, and some of the injured could be seen limping or being carried from the crash site. Some people who exited the train stood, wrapped in blankets, under temporary tents.
The rescue effort was continuing hours after the derailment, and a family reunification center was operating out of City Hall in DuPont, a town of fewer than 10,000 people.
Scott Claggett, a software salesman, was taking the train to Portland for a business meeting. He reported feeling the train start to lean to the left. The train “kind of buckled,” he said, windows started to shatter, and “people started flying left and right.”
“I crawled underneath a table and at that point, I was wishing and praying that it was going to stop because I’m still alive – I think – you know, because it’s just so surreal,” Claggett said.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency and urged commuters to avoid the area during the "ongoing and serious situation." An investigative "go-team" was being assembled at the scene, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, a National Transportation Safety Board member.
Amtrak said its service south of Seattle was suspended. Service from Seattle to points north and east continued to operate.
Amtrak Cascades trains connect 18 cities along the I-5 corridor including Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Ore.
Trump proposed a $630 million cut in Amtrak subsidies for long-distance service – nearly half the $1.4 billion provided the previous year – by arguing the trains are often late and operate at a loss.
“Amtrak’s long distance trains do not serve a vital transportation purpose, and are a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option,” according to his budget plan.
Keith Millhouse, rail-safety consultant and a former board chairman of Southern California's Metrolink commuter rail, said investigators from NTSB will secure evidence at the scene such as track-signal devices and the train’s recorder, which should provide the speed, throttle movement and braking, if any, before the accident. Investigators will also interview witnesses and the engineer before their memories of the crash fade.
Millhouse, who headed Metrolink during the investigation of a crash between a commuter train and a freight train that killed 25 people in September 2008, said derailments typically happen for one of three reasons: human error, catastrophic mechanical or equipment failure or debris left on the track either intentionally or unintentionally.
Based on media coverage of the curved track and of witness descriptions about the train shaking before the derailment, Millhouse said it sounded like the train was going too fast. After a fatal Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May 2015, the NTSB ruled that an engineer lost awareness of where he was on his route and headed into a 50-mph curve at more than 100 mph.
“Based on the speed of the train and looking at that curve, this is a case that is eerily similar to what happened in Philadelphia in 2015,” Millhouse said. “I believe for some reason, the likely cause was the train was going too fast going around this curve and derailing and tipping over as a result.”
Congress has ordered railroads to install automatic braking in order to slow down trains that are speeding or halt them where signals indicate, with a deadline at the end of 2018.
“The big tragedy here is that if indeed it was over-speed, positive train control would have prevented this accident,” Millhouse said.
Benedict Morelli, a New York lawyer who represented passengers in the Philadelphia crash, said investigators will study in detail at how the train cars left the track and how passengers were thrown about inside. In interviews, they will ask whether the engineer was distracted, perhaps by using a cellphone or from something going on along the tracks, Morelli said.
Investigators will also scrutinize testing of the tracks before the inaugural high-speed trip.
“If the train was proceeding at 25 mph, you hardly expect that to happen,” Morelli said. “How much testing did they do? Did they do the testing at high speeds, and at varying speeds? All things that they want to know.”
Congress raised the cap on railroad liability in an accident from $200 million to $295 million after the Philadelphia crash, and Amtrak settled for $265 million in that case. The cap only applies to occupants of the train, not rail workers or people on the highway who might have been injured, Morelli said.
But Congress should have also hastened the requirement for railroads to adopt automatic-braking technology called “positive train control” before the latest accident, Morelli said.
“You would think after that, that Congress would move quickly and not wait another year to put that into effect,” Morelli said.
Farley reported for the Kitsap Sun from DuPont; Jansen, James and Bacon, for USA TODAY. Contributing: Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; Associated Press