An Amtrak train making its inaugural run along a faster new route Monday derailed and hurtled off a bridge over Interstate 5 near DuPont, killing at least three passengers and injuring dozens more.
Officials said there were 77 passengers and seven crew members aboard Train 501 when 13 of 14 train cars jumped the tracks. One car was still precariously dangling from the bridge by the time night fell and first responders worked to bring in a crane to recover victims still inside.
A hazardous materials team was working with the state Department of Ecology to remove 350 gallons of diesel fuel that leaked from one train car.
Gov. Jay Inslee called a state of emergency shortly after the train derailed about 7:40 a.m. just south of Mounts Road.
“It couldn’t have happened in a worst spot,” Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “The train cars are dangling by the bridge, some are in the woods and some are on the freeway.”
Investigators have not said what they believe caused the derailment of Train 501, which was on its first day of a faster new route.
An official briefed on the investigation told the AP that preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track.
Passengers said they were rounding a curve on the tracks when they were suddenly thrown forward. There were 78 passengers and seven crew members on board, according to Amtrak.
A short audio clip from the train was released by Broadcastify, capturing the dramatic first moments after the derailment.
“Amtrak 501, emergency, emergency, emergency. We are on the ground,” the conductor said. “We are on the bridge (inaudible) on the freeway. We need EMS ASAP. It looks like they’re already starting to show up.”
A voice then asks what happened.
“We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there ... and we went on the ground,” the conductor said.
The voice then asks if everybody is OK.
“I’m still figuring that out,” the engineer responded. “We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.”
Thirteen of the 14 train cars came off the tracks and fell onto I-5, hitting five vehicles and two semi-trailers, Trooper Brooke Bova said.
Some of those drivers were hurt; none was killed.
Chris Karnes was one of those onboard the train.
“At a certain point the train wobbled for a second, and the next thing we knew we were being sort of catapulted into the seats in front of us,” he said. “There were crashing and crunching noises, the lights went out. There was glass shattering, everyone’s personal belongings flew to the front of the car and people were screaming.”
Several had to kick out windows on the train to escape, saying emergency doors did not function properly.
“I felt the train starting to go on its side,” said Anthony Raimondi, 72, of Gig Harbor. “Then I felt some bumps. Then everything went dark, and I started climbing around.”
He was able to climb out of the train with a bit of help from others, and still had some mud on his ear when he spoke to The News Tribune at DuPont City Hall about 11 a.m.
“I’m feeling very lucky for myself and for those who survived,” said Raimondi, who was not hurt.
Seventy-seven people were taken to hospitals in Pierce and Thurston counties, according to CHI Franciscan Health. Four of the injured suffered critical injuries.
All southbound lanes of I-5 in the area were completely blocked. That section of freeway will be closed through at least Tuesday morning, the state Department of Transportation estimated.
An estimated 60,000 drivers use that section of I-5 daily.
In the meantime, there are several detours in place for southbound traffic, including one from Center Drive in DuPont through JBLM and over to state Route 510.
“Please expect congestion through that area, that is one of our biggest detours,” Bova said.
WSDOT said it is waiting until the National Transportation Safety Board processes the scene before it can start removing the damaged train cars.
“We anticipate this will be a lengthy process due to the severity of the incident and the size and weight of the train cars,” the agency said in a statement.
An NTSB team consisting of 20 people is expected to arrive on scene late Monday.
The train was on its inaugural route, called the Point Defiance Bypass. It was a $181 million project seven years in the making.
For more than 100 years, passenger trains have traveled along Tacoma’s waterfront, along Puget Sound and then inland just north of Nisqually.
The new route uses the same tracks Sound Transit's Sounder trains use on their way to Lakewood.
From that point, the new route takes Amtrak trains south along Interstate 5, crosses the trestle where the derailment occurred and then reconnects with BNSF Railway’s main line just north of Nisqually.
The change was supposed to shave 10 minutes off the trip and separate Amtrak trains from freight lines that often caused delays on the Point Defiance route.
Some expressed concern about the speed of the trains.
Last week, Joint Base Lewis-McChord tweeted a warning that “trains traveling about 80 miles per hour begin running on the tracks along the JBLM I-5 corridor on Dec. 18. Never stop on the tracks.”
Transitdocs.com, a website that tracks Amtrak train speeds, said Train 501 was traveling 81.1 mph not long before the derailment. The maximum speed on the track is 79 mph and it slows to a 30 mph speed limit at the curve where the train cars fell onto I-5.
Daniel Konzelman, who was driving on I-5 parallel to the train, told The Seattle Times he was traveling 60 mph and watched the train pass his vehicle about a half-mile before the crash.
It’s too soon to know if speed contributed to the derailment but Amtrak’s president and CEO, Richard Anderson, said a switch that automatically slows trains down (Positive Train Control) was not activated on the tracks at the time of the derailment.
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’s launch, 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 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.
Sen. Steve O’Ban also said he has expressed concerns about the safety of high-speed trains and plans to address them with federal, state and local authorities.
Mary Chancey, who lives in DuPont, said the community feared a derailment on the new route.
“Nobody in DuPont wanted this (the new train route),” she said. “This is exactly what we were afraid would happen. This or somebody getting hit by a train.”
Family members looking to reunite with loved ones aboard the derailed train are asked to go to DuPont City Hall and avoid the scene. They can also call 1-800-523-9101.
About 20 people from the train were taken to the council chambers at DuPont City Hall, where folding tables were set up with water, coffee, boxed lunches and other donated supplies.
The city asked some local businesses to help, and other donations were unsolicited.
The passengers had left for home by mid-afternoon, and the city planned to give the remaining supplies to first responders and to a food bank.
“It's amazing to see the community come together in a situation like this,” city spokeswoman Erin Gowenlock said.
Bloodwords Northwest said it has issued more than 150 units of blood so far for those injured in the derailment. Their supply for O-type blood, AB plasma and platelets will only last a day or two, they said. Willing donors are asked to schedule an appointment at schedule.bloodworksnw.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653