Amtrak derailment: Multiple deaths as passenger train falls off track onto busy Washington motorway

Reports of at least six deaths as investigation into incident 

Shocking aerial footage shows Amtrak devastation in Washington state

An Amtrak train on its first journey along a newly-opened section of track has derailed on an overpass in Washington state, killing multiple passengers and spilling over a major highway.

Investigators are now working to discern the reason for the derailing, which occurred on a bridge overlooking a stretch of interstate 5, a major highway, near DuPont around 7.30am local time. Thirteen of the 14 cars that made up the train left the track. More than 70 people were transported to local hospitals for treatment, including four “level red” patients with the most severe injuries. At least another nine were in "serious but stable" condition.

“When we got to the scene it was obvious that there were some fatalities and there were a lot of injuries, and some people were able to get off the train,” Pierce County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ed Troyer told reporters.

Authorities were only able to confirm three deaths, but multiple outlets put the figure at a minimum of six fatalities, citing unnamed officials. The confirmed number could rise given the volume of critically injured victims.

Among the injured were motorists who had been struck by the derailed cars, none of whom were killed, Mr Troyer said. Five vehicles and two trucks were involved in the accident.

“Multiple cars and trucks were struck by train cars that left the train tracks and went down onto the road. The people that were in the vehicles, even though when you see the pictures it’s pretty horrific, at this point nobody in any of the vehicles is a fatal. The fatals are all contained to the train,” he said.

First responders faced “very precarious, very dangerous” task in entering and searching train cars that were still dangling off the tracks, Jay Sumerlin of West Pierce Fire and Rescue told reporters. But by late afternoon every car had been searched, with firefighters using jaws of life and saws to carve entrances.

“It took a lot of extrication tools,“ Mr Sumerlin told reporters. ”It wasn’t easy for firefighters to get through“.

Passenger Chris Karnes described a frantic scramble to get off the stricken train, telling KIRO 7 that people kicked out windows after discovering emergency doors weren’t functioning.

“All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill,” Mr Karnes told KIRO 7. “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”.

A member of the train's crew told an emergency dispatcher that the train came around a corner before the bridge and then “we went on the ground,” according to an apparent audio recording of the incident posted by Broadcastify.com.

After the dispatcher asked whether everyone was OK, the crew member replied, “I am still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.” The dispatcher also asked for the driver's location, and he responded, “As soon as I know exactly where all of my train is, I'll let you know.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation confirmed that the train derailed on the first day that a section of tracks was in public use. In a statement, the board said the tracks were opened after “weeks of inspection and testing” of upgrades funded by the Federal Railroad Administration. The Point Defiance Overpass project cost some $181 million.

Amtrak said in a statement that approximately 77 passengers and seven crew members were on board the train. Amtrak President Richard Anderson told reporters that track technology known as Positive Train Control, that is intended to prevent high-speed derailments among other potential accidents, was not in effect.

The railroad industry has spent billions of dollars implementing Positive Train Control according to the Association of American Railroads, which with system using GPS and wireless internet connections to automatically halt trains before accidents unfold. In 2015, Congress pushed back by three years a deadline for railroads to adopt the system.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for investigating major transit incidents, said a “go team” of investigators had been dispatched. In a press briefing, NTSB member T Bella Dinh-Zarr said “we are aware of the fact that this was called an inaugural run of this service”. She added that said a team of 20 investigators will be at the scene on Monday evening, but at the moment it was too early to say if the crash was due to high speed.

An Amtrak representative declined to answer questions about whether the train may have been travelling too fast, deferring to the NTSB investigation.

“Anything beyond that right now until their findings are out is pure speculation,” Gay Banks Olson said.

In images shared by authorities, train cars could be seen teetering off of the tracks and curling onto the highway on one side and a forested area on the other. The transportation department noted that all southbound lanes of a major highway were blocked and urged commuters to avoid the area, warning that long delays awaited drivers even on alternate routes.

Washington Gov Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency, noting in his proclamation “significant structural damage to the overpass, railway and highway infrastructure” and saying the combined effects of the derailment and road closures amounted to a “public disaster”. In a separate statement he called the derailment a “serious and ongoing emergency,” saying his office was still gathering information from Amtrak.

Daniel Konzelman was one of thousands of commuters on the highway when the crash happened. He stayed for two hours trying to help the injured, along with a friend. “I just wanted to help people because I would want people to help me,” he told the Associated Press.

While authorities were not yet publicly detailing a cause of the accident, Washington Rep Denny Heck told CNN that “something went very, very wrong”.

“There is some questions that we will demand to be answered,” Mr Heck said, adding that the incident went “way, way, way outside the usual bounds even of accidents”.

Lakewood, Washington mayor Don Anderson told MSNBC that plans for the newly inaugurated route had spurred worries before the derailment.

“Our community has been very concerned about the safety of this modification of the rail route for several years and were unsuccessful in either stopping it or having some modifications,” Mr Anderson said.

A few hours after the derailment occurred, Donald Trump cited the incident as 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!” the President said on Twitter.

The line of the Cascades is part of the key west coast long-distance rail artery, a route between Vancouver in Canada and San Diego on the Mexican border. While there are six trains a day scheduled each way between Seattle and Portland, the main users of US railroads are freight trains.

The US rail network sees far more accidents than European railways. In the UK there have been no fatal accidents in the past 10 years. In the US, there have been 10, with dozens of passengers losing their lives.

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