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 more than 100.
Officials said there were about 80 passengers and five crew members aboard the train 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.
Simultaneously, 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.
A total of 77 people were taken to area hospitals with injuries, four of whom were critically injured, according to CHI Franciscan Health.
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 Associated Press that preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track.
The new bypass route underwent “extensive” testing before Monday's derailment, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
That included full sets of cars intended to replicate the weight of a loaded passenger train, she said.
“There were trains that ran with the same weight as what the trains were today,” Matkin said.
Testing took place earlier this year. Asked how many individual tests were conducted, Matkin repeated the word “extensive,” and said she did not know the specific number.
The tests were run at different speeds along the route, at limits set by the locations, from 30 miles per hour to 79 mph, the maximum, from the beginning of the project route to its reconnection with BNSF rail lines beyond the bridge.
“We did testing at track speeds,” Matkin said. “They went up to the maximum speed limit for each section of the rails.”
The rail ties, tracks and ballast were rebuilt and replaced as part of the project, though replacement of the bridge span was not part of the project plan.
Monday morning, as the train rounded a curve on the tracks, passengers said they were suddenly thrown forward.
“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,” Chris Karnes, who was onboard, 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 people had to kick out windows on the train to escape, saying emergency doors did not function properly.
A short audio clip from the train captured the dramatic first moments after the derailment.
“Emergency, emergency, emergency,” the conductor can be heard saying. “We are on the ground.”
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.”
All 12 train cars and one of two engines came off the tracks and fell onto I-5, hitting five vehicles and two semi-trailers, Trooper Brooke Bova said. Two vehicles were crushed.
Some of those drivers were hurt; none was killed.
Several passersby rushed to help those injured on I-5, arriving moments before fire crews got on scene and began extricating patients.
Jay Sumerlin, a battalion chief with West Pierce Fire & Rescue, called the situation “surreal” and described the rescues as “dangerous.”
He said local agencies have trained for how to respond to train derailments.
People say “oh, that’s never going to happen. And here we are,” Sumerlin said.
About 20 train passengers who were not injured were bused to DuPont City Hall, where they were able to reunite with loved ones.
Anthony Raimondi, 72, of Gig Harbor was one of those people. He worked for Amtrak for 17 years, loves trains and wanted to be part of the inaugural run.
“I felt the train starting to go on its side,” he said. “Then I felt some bumps. Then everything went dark, and I started climbing around.”
Raimondi 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,” he said.
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.
About 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 before the new route was put into operation.
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 about a quarter-mile 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 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.”
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 state Department of Transportation.
The tracks are owned by Sound Transit. They were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.
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 shows “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.” The accident happened on a newly completed bypass.
Bloodworks 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.
News Tribune Staff Writer Sean Robinson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653