Multiple deaths in Amtrak train derailment over Washington state highway
Dupont, WA. (CNN) - An Amtrak passenger train on its first trip on a new service route derailed Monday morning near Dupont, Washington, spilling 13 cars off an Interstate 5 overpass and killing several people, according to the spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Office and the Washington State Patrol.
The deaths "are all contained to the train," said Ed Troyer, the Pierce County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "It's pretty horrific."
Troyer said there were "multiple fatalities" but couldn't provide a precise number.
-- About 77 people were transported to hospitals in Pierce and Thurston counties, officials said. Four of them suffered serious injuries, according to Cary Evans, spokesman for CHI Franciscan Health.
-- Amtrak President & Co-CEO Richard Anderson said "Positive Train Control" was not activated on the tracks when the derailment happened. PTC is a technology which automatically slows down, and eventually stops, a train if it senses it is going too fast.
-- Thirteen cars jumped the track. The train had 14 cars, including two engines, said Brook Bova of the Washington State Patrol.
-- A passenger on the train says his car derailed and everyone "catapulted" into the seat in front of them.
-- The National Transportation Safety Board announced it is sending a 20-member team to investigate.
-- Photos from the scene show at least one train car on the road, with another dangling over it.
Injured taken to hospitals
The crash happened about 7:40 a.m. local time near the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Dupont, about 20 miles south of Tacoma. The train was running southbound from Seattle when 13 rail cars derailed in a curve near an interstate overpass, sending them onto the highway below and shutting down traffic.
Several motorists in vehicles that were struck by the fallen train cars suffered injuries, but there were no fatalities among people in those vehicles, the sheriff's office said. Five cars and two semi-trucks were involved in the crash, Bova said.
The train was carrying 77 passengers and 7 crew members, said Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Brooke Bova at a news conference. Monday was the first day of Amtrak 501's Cascades service between Seattle and Portland, Amtrak said.
The train was running on track previously used for occasional freight and military transport, the Washington Department of Transportation said in a news release. WDOT said the track had undergone millions of dollars of federally funded improvements and weeks of inspection and testing.
The NTSB and local authorities have not said what caused the crash, but questions were quickly raised about the train's speed as it hit a curve in the track.
In a conference call with reporters, Amtrak President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson said "Positive Train Control" was not activated on the tracks, at the time of the derailment. Positive Train Control is a technology which automatically slows down, and eventually stops, a train if it senses the train is going too fast and could derail or get in an accident.
Anderson would not answer CNN's questions regarding the speed of the train or the crew's tenure at Amtrak.
'We catapulted into the seats in front of us'
Emergency radio transmissions between the train conductor and the dispatcher were frantic and dramatic:
Dispatcher: Hey guys, what happened?
AMTRAK 501: Uh, we were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there, right north into Nisqually and we went on the ground.
Dispatcher: ...Is everybody OK?
AMTRAK 501: I'm still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.
Chris Karnes, a passenger on the train, is chairman of the Pierce Transit Community Transportation Advisory Group. He said he boarded the train between Seattle and Tacoma and took a seat on the third or fourth car.
Karnes said the train was moving at a "pretty good pace" -- roughly 70 to 80 mph, judging from the fact the train was passing cars on the highway -- when it derailed.
"We felt a little bit of a jolt and then at a certain point we could hear crumpling of the train car, and we were catapulted into the seats in front of us," he said.
It appeared most of the passengers in Karnes' car fared well, with the exception of an elderly man who banged his head on the bulkhead, he said.
Karnes' car derailed -- only the rear locomotive remained on the tracks -- and passengers kicked out a window and climbed down an embankment to summon help, he said.
He did not know what caused the derailment but said the train had previously taken tighter curves at the same pace without any issues.
Motorist Danae Orlob told CNN there was a semi and a crushed truck underneath the train cars.
"We came around the corner and it had to have just happened ... there were no police there yet. There was one link of the train off to one side and the other on the other side of the freeway. There were crushed cars underneath. There was an insane amount of fire trucks and ambulances heading towards us."
All southbound lanes of the interstate were closed due to the derailment, and the sight stunned motorists heading to work.
"I was traveling to work this morning along I-5 and we came to a sudden stop," Greg Mukai told CNN by phone. "We all tried to stop quickly to avoid running into each other, to be honest. Once we all came to a stop I was able to look up and see, unfortunately, this scary thing of ... a train hanging off of the overpass. Lots of military personnel and people ran to try to help the best they could."