Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite were friends and fellow train enthusiasts who were among a core group of volunteers who pushed for improvements on the Seattle-to-Portland Amtrak route. On Monday, their efforts came to fruition, and they were thrilled to be among the passengers on the inaugural run of the new, improved route.
After leaving Tacoma and then passing by the Army's Joint Base Lewis-McChord in a mostly straightaway run, the lead locomotive and all 12 passenger cars began rocking and groaning as they approached a curve in the tracks near Dupont, Wash.
Then the train went airborne, breaking into two sections and flying off both sides of a trestle over Interstate 5 — then landing amid the rush-hour traffic below.
The Amtrak Cascades, capable of seating 250, carried 80-some passengers and a crew of five, the rail service said. More than 70 of the injured were taken to hospitals. Officials said it was something of a miracle that no one in the traffic below was killed by the falling 65-ton train cars and 150-ton locomotive.
But Hamre, 61, and Willhoite, 35, were among three people who died when the train hit the roadway, turning compartments into twisted metal and blanketing victims with broken glass.
Hamre and Willhoite were members of a train fan group, All Aboard Washington. Hamre was the association's vice president and newsletter editor, and Willhoite was director of information technology.
Hamre's niece, Rachel Topper, confirmed her uncle's death Tuesday, but had no further comment. In an earlier Facebook post, she said the family was heartbroken. Hamre, who lived with his mother in nearby Puyallup, Wash., was a civil engineer before he retired from the Washington Transportation Department.
Willhoite's death was announced Monday by his wife, Taylor, in a Facebook post from family friend Kevin Cartwright.
"Zack supported the preservation of 374 [a historic bus project] and his transit archives and documentation of Tacoma Transit and Pierce County Transit vehicles is probably more extensive than anyone in the Pacific Northwest region," the post said. "Zack's friend Jim Hamre also died alongside him in the incident."
In addition to his railroad hobby, Willhoite had worked for Pierce Transit in Tacoma since 2008. The transit service issued a statement, saying it "was deeply saddened" by Willhoite's death. "He has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency. He will be sincerely missed."
A friend of the men, Mark Foutch, called their deaths tragic. "All the miles and trains ridden — and to be killed so close to home on a train they helped establish," he said on Facebook. Two mainstays of our board at All Aboard Washington, gone. Words are inadequate."
"As we all knew they would be," wrote another friend, Carl Fowler, also on Facebook, "Jim and his great friend Zach Wilhoite were on Amtrak Train 501 on the first run over the new route and they were, unbelievably, two of the three killed in the horrible derailment of that train.
"I can't even begin to express my grief! Zach was the kindest, smartest, most decent guy, and even more an extraordinarily insightful friend. Jim Hamre was quite simply the brother I never had, my best friend and a far better person than me."
Willhoite and Hamre both filled their Facebook pages with photos of trains and buses. Fowler said the two transit fans were born to be friends. "They were soul mates," he added.
"They went with me on tours I led to Europe and the world. We ate pizza together, laughed together, saw glorious scenery and wonderful places. … I'm going to have to be unusually quiet for me to take this in, but, oh God, what a bloody waste. Three fatalities too many and all of us knew two of them and they were so fine."
The third victim had not been identified by late Tuesday.