By RACHEL LA CORTE
DUPONT, Wash. (AP) — An Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a faster new route hurtled off an overpass on Monday south of Seattle and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below, killing at least six people, authorities said. The death toll was expected to rise.
Seventy-eight passengers and five crew members were aboard when the train, which moving at more than 80 mph, derailed on a route that had raised safety concerns. At least 50 people were taken to a hospital, more than a dozen having critical or serious injuries, authorities said.
An official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press that preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track about 40 miles south of Seattle. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A local official had raised concerns about the safety of the new bypass at a public meeting as recently as two weeks ago.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said several vehicles on Interstate 5 were struck by falling train cars and various motorists were injured. No drivers were reported to have been killed.
In a radio transmission immediately after the accident, the train’s conductor can be heard saying the train was coming around a corner and was crossing a bridge that passed over Interstate 5 when it derailed.
“I’m still figuring that out. We’ve got cars everywhere and down onto the highway,” he tells the dispatcher, who asks if everyone is OK.
Chris Karnes was on the train, three or four cars from the front. He said the only part of the train remaining on the tracks was the rear locomotive. Several cars were hanging over the overpass.
Daniel Konzelman, 24, was driving parallel to the train on his way to work as an accountant in Olympia. He was about 30 seconds ahead of the train on the freeway when he saw it derail.
Konzelman, who was driving with a friend, said he pulled off the freeway and then ran down along the tracks and over the bridge to get to the scene. He and his friend saw three cars and a semi-truck on the freeway that had been damaged by the derailment. There were train cars with their roofs ripped off, or that were tipped upside down, on both sides of the track or turned sideways on the bridge.
They climbed into train cars and found people hurt — some pinned underneath the train, others who appeared to be dead, he said. If they were mobile and seemed stable, he helped them climb out. If they appeared seriously hurt, he tried to comfort them by talking to them.
“I just wanted to help people because I would want people to help me,” he said. “I’m an Eagle Scout. I have a lot of first-aid training and emergency response training.”
They stayed for nearly two hours before hitting the road again.
“I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. I saw a little bit of both,” he said.
President Donald Trump used the deadly derailment to call for more infrastructure spending in a tweet sent about three hours after the accident. He said the wreck, on a newly completed bypass, shows “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
The train was making the inaugural run on the new route as part of a $180.7 million project designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound. The route is bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.
The Amtrak Cascades train service is jointly owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Amtrak operates the service for the two states as a contractor and is responsible for day-to-day operations. Amtrak Cascades runs trains from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon.
The Amtrak schedule called for the train to leave Seattle around 6 a.m. and arrive in Portland about 3 1/2 hours later.
Monday marked the first public use of the new bypass built on an existing inland rail line that runs along Interstate 5 from Tacoma to DuPont, near where Train 501 derailed. Track testing was completed in January and February in advance of Monday, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The tracks, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, are owned by Sound Transit, the transit agency serving the Seattle area. They were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.
The mayor of Lakewood, Washington, a city along the new route, predicted a deadly crash — but one involving a fast-moving train hitting a car or pedestrian at a grade-crossing, not a train tumbling off an overpass. At a recent public meeting, he called on state planners to build overpass-like rail structures instead of having trains cross busy streets.
The National Transportation Safety Board said a team of investigators was on its way to the scene from Washington, D.C.
The train was going 81.1 mph moments before the derailment, according to transitdocs.com, a website that maps Amtrak train locations and speeds using data from the railroad’s train tracker app.
The maximum speed along the stretch of track is 79 mph, according to information about the route posted online by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
All southbound lanes of I-5 were closed south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and motorists were being drivers to avoid the area.
Associated Press writers Sally Ho and Phuong Le in Seattle, Michael Sisak in Philadelphia, Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Portland contributed to this report.