Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, two of the three victims who died in the Amtrak train derailment crash near Tacoma, Washington, were public transportation enthusiasts who were close friends and well known in communities devoted to rail travel.
Willhoite, who worked for Pierce Transit, was admired for his Pacific Northwest transit archives. Hamre wrote route guidebooks and once worked for the Washington State Department of Transportation, “advocating for more and better trains in America,” in the words of a friend. These tight-knit communities are mourning the men, who died doing what they loved.
“Very sad to hear of the passing of two folks in the train derailment from the railfan community,” wrote Ken Liesse on Facebook. “Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite were both well respected in these parts, and Jim was a big mover and shaker in the Washington Association of Railroad Passengers. RIP.”
The 501 train derailed over I-5 on December 18 on its inaugural trip from Seattle to Portland, crumpling dramatically over the freeway. The cause remains under investigation, but authorities said the train was going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. The third victim has not yet been identified. In addition to the three fatalities, 72 people were taken to hospitals. As it was the train’s first trip, some people on board were rail enthusiasts who desired to be part of the moment.
Family and friends identified the men as among the three victims in tributes posted to social media. On Facebook, Hamre’s page was filled with photos of trains, and Willhoite’s was filled with photos of buses. According to a friend, Carl Fowler, the two men were both strong advocates of public transport. “As we all knew they would be, Jim and his great friend Zach Wilhoite were on Amtrak Train 501 on the first run over the new route and they were, unbelievably, two of the three killed in the horrible derailment of that train,” Fowler wrote on Hamre’s Facebook page. On December 15, Hamre posted a photo from inside a train depot and wrote, “Waiting for train 500 for the return trip along the Narrows. — at Olympia-Lacey Amtrak Station.”
“Permit me to share some thoughts I posted a moment ago on Zach’s Facebook feed,” continued Fowler. “I can’t even begin to express my grief! Zach was the kindest, smartest, most decent guy, and even more an extraordinarily insightful friend. Jim Hamre was quite simply the brother I never had, my best friend and a far better person than me. I met Jim in 1981. Even then he was working on citizen advocacy for public transport. We leafleted, went to public meetings, mutually joined the NARP Board, but mostly had fun together.”
A relative of Hamre responded to Fowler’s comments by writing, “Carl thank you for your kind words. My uncle Jim will be missed by so many. We are all very heart broken. We will make sure to contact you when we have arrangements made.”
Pierce Transit released a statement confirming Willhoite’s death. “The entire Pierce Transit team was deeply saddened to learn that one of our employees was a victim of the Dec. 18 Amtrak train accident,” it read. “IT Customer Service Support Specialist Zack Willhoite has been a Pierce Transit employee since 2008. He has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency. He will be sincerely missed. Our thoughts are with Zack’s family, as well as the families of the other victims, during this very difficult time.” A WSDOT employee identified Hamre as the former WSDOT Olympic Region IT manager.
APRHF Rail Rangers, a group devoted to the “role that passenger rail played in the building of this nation,” wrote, “It’s with a heavy heart this morning that we ask for your prayers. We just found out that Jim Hamre, an avid supporter of NARP and the APRHF Rail Rangers passed away during the Amtrak accident in Washington State yesterday. He rode with three of our guides us just last month to experience our onboard educational programs to Milwaukee and Michigan City. He sat next to us for part of the trips and made sure to buy his route guidebooks to support the APRHF. We love you, Jim. We wish comfort and healing to your family and other friends.”
Dennis Lytton wrote, “I’ve know Jim for years from our advocacy for passenger trains, especially our work at the National Association of Railroad Passengers (checked in herein under its recent new name, Rail Passengers Association). Jim spent much of his personal time and treasure, when he wasn’t working at WSDOT, advocating for more and better trains in America.”
Fowler met Willhoite through Hamre. “They were soul-mates. They went with me on tours I led to Europe and the world. We ate pizza together, laughed together, saw glorious scenery and wonderful place… I’m going to have to be unusually quiet for me to take this in, but oh God what a bloody waste. Three fatalities too many and all of us knew two of them and they were so fine,” Fowler wrote.
Friend Kevin R. Cartwright also wrote a tribute to Willhoite. “It is with a heavy heart I inform you that Zack Willhoite’s wife Taylor has publicly announced Zack was one of the casualties in today’s derailment of Amtrak 501,” Cartwright wrote. “Zack supported the preservation of 374 and his transit archives and documentation of Tacoma Transit and Pierce County Transit vehicles is probably more extensive than anyone in the Pacific Northwest region. Zack’s friend Jim Hamre also died alongside him in the incident. We lost an angel today, and we will never forget Zack’s contributions to our hobby. May he Rest In Peace and smile with us from afar as we fondly remember him and recount the good memories with which he has left us.” The 374 was a type of public bus; there is a Facebook page devoted to its preservation.
Chris Karnes of Tacoma Transit wrote on Twitter, “It’s heartbreaking to hear that @PierceTransit employee and rail aficionado Zack Willhoite did not survive the derailment. He helped our advisory committee with IT issues, and behind the scenes he was a writer and advocate for better transit for all. He will be missed.”
Willhoite was also part of other communities. “Today the Rocky Horror community mourns the loss of Alumni dual-cast member Zack Willhoite. Zack lost his life yesterday in the tragic Amtrak accident in DuPont. Our thoughts are with his wife and family during this difficult time,” wrote friend Chip Wilson.
You can read more about the train derailment here: