An Amtrak train heading southbound on its inaugural run derailed near Tacoma, Washington, dramatically crumpling onto a major interstate, I-5, killing at least three people and injuring many more.
Dan Hall, captain of the Washington State Patrol, said in a December 18 evening press conference, that the crash occurred around 7:30 a.m. in the morning. “We had the train cars actually come down on Interstate 5,” he said, adding that first responders did a “life rescue search” climbing up a hill through the wet, the cold, and downed power lines and trees to reach victims.
Hull provided these updated numbers: 19 people were transported uninjured from the scene; 72 people were evaluated and transported from the scene, 10 of those people had serious injuries, 4 had moderate injuries, and 9 had minor injuries. Of those seriously injured, 1 was life flighted. Three people were confirmed dead.
The National Transportation Safety Board is now taking over the lead investigative role with the FBI and Washington State Patrol assisting. An Amtrak spokesman also spoke at the press conference and called the derailment a “tragic event” and expressed that Amtrak was “deeply saddened.” Authorities did not shed further light on the cause of the derailment, but the FBI did say in a statement that “At this time, there is no information to suggest a federal nexus or elevated risk to Washington residents.” NBC is reporting that investigators are considering whether speed was a factor in the crash; the Associated Press previously reported through an anonymous source that investigators were also probing whether an object was blocking the train’s path, but this report has not been confirmed. According to The Seattle Times, the train was going 80 mph in the 30 mph zone when it derailed.
Some motorists on I-5 were among the injured, although all deaths occurred on the train, authorities said. “It sounded like being on the inside of an aluminum can being crushed,” eyewitness Chris Karnes told The Seattle Times. He described a horrific scene in which a man may have been thrown from the train, the lights went out, and passengers broke windows to escape.
The 501 train was carrying 80 passengers, five crew members, and a Talgo official when it derailed. News reports of casualties seesawed from three to six deaths throughout the day with the lower number now proving accurate.
The mayor of one Washington city had warned just two weeks before the tragedy that deaths could result from the new train project. According to CBS, the tracks had been used previously for freight traffic. “And they had been rebuilt to carry this 79 mph new Amtrak cascades route,” WSDOT’s Bingham-Baker said.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Photos & Video Captured the Dramatic Wreckage Hanging Over the Interstate
Traffic cameras and citizen videos captured shocking images of the wreckage hanging over the freeway. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department released close-up photos of the scene, calling it “heartbreaking.” Citizen videos also circulated on social media of the derailment, which occurred on the early morning of December 18, 2017. According to the Washington State Patrol, 12 train cars and 2 engines were involved in crash, and 13 cars derailed. Five motor vehicles and two semis were hit on the freeway below.
In the evening press conference, Amtrak said it is opening a family assistance center at a Tacoma Marriott hotel. Amtrak said there is a thorough investigation underway to determine what happened. Amtrak said it would work closely with authorities but would not speculate on the cause, with its spokesman saying that the train contained 14 cars and two locomotives, including 12 passenger cars and a bistro and food service car.
You can watch one of the videos above and one below. The train struck cars on Interstate 5. “Several cars on I5 struck by derailed Amtrak train cars. Multiple motorists injured on roadway, no fatalities of motorists reported,” the Pierce County Sheriff tweeted. One reporter wrote that it might be a “mass casualty” event, and the Pierce County Sheriff confirmed, “Derailed Amtrak passenger train was heading south bound. Injuries and casualties reported, numbers to come.”
Charlie Heebner was named as the first surviving victim; he wanted to ride on the train’s inaugural trip with his wife.
Motorist Greg Mukai described how the tragedy unfolded on the highway below, telling CBS News, “We suddenly had to go from our 60 mph down to zero as fast as possible. We were all avoiding one another to try and avoid a collision there. We saw smoke and the passenger train hanging from the overpass and on the freeway.”
President Trump responded by raising the country’s spending priorities. However, in May, The Washington Post reported, “President Trump’s transportation budget slashes federal aid to the nation’s rail systems by cutting funding for long-distance Amtrak service and severely limiting money to help expand transit lines and build new ones.”
The train “derailed and fell off a bridge over Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia,” reported The Seattle Times, noting that Interstate 5 was “closed in both directions” as emergency responders rushed to the scene. The 501 train was on its first trip, according to the Times. CBS News, quoting Amtrak’s co-CEO, reported that “positive train control (PTC), a system designed to prevent train collisions” was not activated when the train derailed.
The Amtrak Cascades 501 commuter train that derailed Monday morning in DuPont, Washington, was the first run of a new line that was created to save time and create more reliable, faster and more frequent service between Seattle and Portland. You can read more about the project here:
2. The 501 Train, Which Ran From Seattle to Portland, Began ‘Rocking’ & ‘Creaking’
Chris Karnes, chair of Pierce Transit’s advisory board, was on the train and described how suddenly the crash occurred, and the chaotic scene inside the train as people screamed and windows broke. Karnes gave an eyewitness report to KIRO 7. “We had just passed the city of DuPont and it seemed like we were going around a curve,” Karnes said. “All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill. The next thing we know, we’re being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there’s water gushing out of the train. People were screaming.”
He added: “The tracks for this line were supposed to be upgraded to be able to handle higher speeds. I’m not sure what happened at this juncture.”
“Today’s tragic incident in Pierce County is a serious and ongoing emergency,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote in a statement. “Trudi and I are holding in our hearts everyone on board, and are praying for the many injured. They are our top priority, and I know first responders are doing everything to ensure everyone has the care they need.”
Amtrak released a statement at 8:15 a.m. PT that read: “Amtrak is aware of an incident with Train 501, Cascades service from Seattle to Portland. Emergency services are on the scene and Amtrak management is responding. Some injuries are reported. Amtrak service south of Seattle is temporarily suspended. Service from Seattle to points north and east is continuing to operate. Amtrak regrets any inconvenience. This information is correct as of the above time and date. Information is subject to change as conditions warrant.”
Local news reporters said the derailment was being treated as a mass casualty incident. “High speed Amtrak train hanging over I-5 at Mounts road. First responders are treating this as a mass casualty incident, but no official word on injuries yet,” KIRO 7 reported, adding that the train “left from Tacoma and derailed in DuPont” and is “Train 501, Cascades service from Seattle to Portland.”
3. The Train May Have Hit Something on the Tracks, Reports Say
It’s not yet clear how many people were killed in the derailment, although authorities say some people have died. The victims’ identities were not released pending notification of their family members. The Associated Press reported that “preliminary signs indicate the Amtrak train may have struck something on the track before going off the track.” It wasn’t clear what the train might have hit. The tracks the train was traveling on were new.
The train was making its first run on newly constructed tracks when it derailed before 8 a.m. Monday. In a press conference, the NTSB said they are sending investigators to the scene. Asked if speed was a factor, a NTSB official said it was too early to say. She said they will leave the casualty and injury counts to local authorities but are planning to interview the crew. The tracks are called the Point Defiance Bypass and their owner is Sound Transit, the Washington State Department of Transportation wrote in a statement. “The tracks were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.”
The State Department of Transportation confirmed the derailment, writing, “All SB lanes of I-5 blocked near Mounts Road in Pierce County due to derailed train car. Avoid area!” Amtrak wrote initially, “We are aware of an incident involving Amtrak train 501. We will update with additional details as they become available.”
“We were coming around the corner to take the bridge… and we went on the ground,” a train official says in the dispatch audio.
Chris Karnes wrote on Twitter, “The train has derailed. Emergency crews are on the scene. Massive damage. People are hurt.” The train derailed and fell off a bridge and on the I-5 freeway in Washington State near Seattle. Karnes added in another tweet, “The train hit a truck apparently. I am fine, but the train is destroyed.” However, the truck angle was not confirmed by authorities.
A KIRO7 photojournalist Terry Griffin wrote on Twitter, “#BreakingNews high speed @Amtrak train hanging over I-5 at Mounts road. First responders treating this as a mass casualty incident. No official word on injuries yet. @KIRO7Seattle.”
Tim Williams, a CBS News digital content manager, posted a photo with the caption, “#BREAKING: PHOTO: An Amtrak train has derailed near Olympia, Washington State. Part of the train hanging off the track onto I-5 below. Pic @naenae07.”
4. A Local Mayor Recently Predicted People Would Be Killed Because of the High-Speed Trains
Not long ago, the mayor of Lakewood, Washington had predicted that someone would be killed by the high-speed trains. “The mayor of Lakewood believes it is just a matter of time before these high speed trains kill someone. He asked the DOT presenters to do better. Mayor Don Anderson said grade separations – such as overpasses – should be included to keep trains away from cars and pedestrians,” KOMO News reported at the time.
“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,” Anderson said to KOMO News. According to Fox News, “Monday was the first day of schedule changes to include two new round trips between Seattle and Portland…Amtrak train 501 runs between Portland and Seattle daily.”
Joint-Base Lewis-McChord posted this warning before the derailment:
According to the Seattle Times, “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’…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.”
5. People Said Prayers for the Victims & the Cause Was Not Clear
The train derailment occurred on the morning of December 18, 2017. People were already reacting on social media. Wrote one man, “Amtrak train derailment, Mounts Rd. over I5. Southbound lanes complete shutdown. The drive home this morning will suck, back roads here we come. Saying a prayer for the injured and the rescuers with the extremely difficult task ahead…”
A Washington State Patrol trooper advised on Twitter: “Family reunification center at DuPont City Hall. Do NOT come to the scene.”
Pacific Northwest websites devoted to Antifa causes have recently posted articles about train sabotage efforts by environmentalists, and there have been rail line protests over fracking, although they targeted freight trains, not commuter ones. There is no evidence of any tie to the December 18 tragedy. On the other side of the spectrum, people have pointed out that ISIS and terrorists have urged destruction of U.S. rail lines.