Several people were killed and scores more injured when an Amtrak train on its inaugural trip on a new route derailed south of Seattle on Monday morning while crossing a bridge above a busy interstate, authorities said.
Officials said at least 13 cars jumped the tracks. The Associated Press reported the derailment killed at least six people, citing an anonymous U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation. Local officials haven’t confirmed the death toll.
A total of 77 people were sent to hospitals, according to CHI Franciscan Health, which operates numerous hospitals in western Washington. Some patients are in critical conditions, a spokesman said.
The scene was a jumble of derailed train cars and at least two crushed vehicles that were passing on the highway below. At least one car from the train ended up under the bridge, perhaps indicative of the fact the train was traveling at about 80 miles per hour. Another train car dangled from the bridge, piercing the roof of the train car beneath the bridge. One of the two train engines was spun around on Interstate 5 below the bridge, at least three other cars were clear of the track bed, and two derailed cars remained on the rail bed.
Though authorities said no one died on the highway, at least five passenger cars and two tractor trailers were badly damaged. One truck, pulling an orange freight container had part of its cab crushed.
Chris Karnes, a passenger, said the train was approaching a curve before it came off the tracks.
“It seemed like we were reaching sort of a bend in the tracks and all of a sudden we were slammed into the seats in front of us,” he told CBS News. “And then the car careened down an embankment and came to a stop. After that happened we could hear and feel the cars crumpling and breaking apart.”
Karnes, who was in a car toward the front of the train, said he and other passengers had to kick out a window to get out. Passengers had visible injuries – “cuts, people bleeding,” he said. “I did see one person who was laying on the ground and not moving.”
He said military police, firefighters and medics flooded the scene. In his rail car, he said the passenger load was “relatively light.” But authorities said some of the cars derailed in the woods and rescuers were using chain saws to get to passengers.
The cause of the derailment was unclear, but the train was entering a curve as it made its way south from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. Though the train had been tested on the track, owned by Seattle’s Sound Transit system, Monday’s run was the first time it made the trip with a full load of 78 passengers and their baggage.
The Washington State Department of Transportation said the Seattle-Portland corridor was equipped with positive train control, which would have slowed a train hurtling into a curve above the posted speed, but that the system was not scheduled to be turned on until next year. Amtrak’s trains have been equipped with the devices, but they communicate with sensors along the track bed that had not been activated.
In a tweet, President Donald Trump said, “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the train accident in DuPont, Washington. Thank you to all of our wonderful First Responders who are on the scene. We are currently monitoring here at the White House.”
He also added via Twitter: “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. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
The engine of the train apparently stayed on the tracks, but at least two cars crashed to the highway below. Another car was left dangling from the bridge with the lower end thrust into the roof of another train car.
Those who died were believed to be on the train and not on the highway. Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said the highway will be closed for a long period, calling it a “pretty horrific” crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate the cause of the derailment, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said, and the Federal Railroad Administration will send investigators to join them. A briefing was scheduled for Monday afternoon in Washington.
“Several of our investigators will be on the scene this afternoon,” said NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr.
A state police spokeswoman told media at the scene that people should stay away from the area. The southbound lanes of I-5 will be closed for the rest of the day and closures could extend to a few days. The investigation on the highway could last a few days, she said.
State police are providing resources and getting supplies to the scene, the spokeswoman said.
Gov. Jay Inslee said on Twitter: “Today’s tragic incident in Pierce County is a serious and ongoing emergency. 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,” Inslee said. “Everyone should avoid traveling I-5, and WSDOT is working to open alternative routes through the area during the emergency response. This morning I spoke with my cabinet officials, and we are in touch with Amtrak who we know are working to provide as much information as possible.”
“This catastrophic derailment is horrific,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.
The train is a new line for Amtrak, running from Seattle to Portland, and is meant to cut the travel time between those cities.
The Amtrak Cascades service that launched Monday is part of an expansion of Amtrak intercity passenger rail service that includes station upgrades and expansions and the addition of new locomotives. The project is an investment of nearly $800 million in federally funded passenger rail service improvements, according to information from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Washington and Oregon jointly operate the Amtrak Cascades intercity passenger service. The trains share the tracks with freight trains and travel at top speeds of 79 mph, according to the project’s highlights. The new service would save 10 minutes in travel time between Seattle to Portland.
More than 60,000 vehicles a day use that area of southbound I-5, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Troyer told Q13 Fox News that there are fatalities and that the property damage is “catastrophic.” He said first responders are “in the woods, using chain saws” trying to get to people. He couldn’t confirm the number of injured or dead.
“A lot of things need to be done before anyone can confirm any numbers,” he said.
The Amtrak Cascades train has daily service between Seattle and Portland, departing from Seattle at 6 a.m. local time. Amtrak’s train status says “status currently unavailable due to a service disruption. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL for more information.”