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World & Nation

Engineer of Amtrak train was not on cellphone at time of crash

FILE- In this Dec. 18, 2017, file photo, cars from an Amtrak train that derailed lie spilled onto In
Cars from an Amtrak train lie on Interstate 5 in DuPont, Wash., after derailing.
(Bettina Hansen / Associated Press)

The engineer of an Amtrak train that derailed from an overpass onto rush-hour traffic on Interstate 5 in DuPont, Wash., was not on his cellphone at the time of the crash, federal investigators said Friday.

“The crew was not observed to use any personal electronic devices during the time frame reviewed,” the National Traffic Safety Board said after a review of audio and video recordings inside Amtrak Cascades Train 501.

For the record:
8:20 AM, Dec. 23, 2017 An earlier version of this article referred to questions about whether the train’s conductor had been on the phone. Questions involved the engineer.

The train left Seattle early Monday morning on its inaugural run to Portland, Ore., with seven crew members and 77 passengers aboard.

About 40 miles south of Seattle, in DuPont, Wash., 13 of 14 cars derailed near a bridge over Interstate 5 as the train reached speeds of 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. Several cars fell onto the freeway below, striking vehicles in rush-hour traffic. Three passengers on the train were killed and dozens were injured.

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Almost immediately, there were questions as to whether the engineer had been on the phone.

It’s common practice for the NTSB to determine whether crew members may have been distracted by personal electronic devices, since it’s happened before. In Los Angeles, for instance, the the agency determined that the engineer of a Metrolink train was distracted by typing text messages on his cellphone when he ran through a red signal in 2008, smashing head-on into a Union Pacific freight train and killing 25 people.

The board’s review of the DuPont crash did not disclose what the crew was doing as the train barreled into a curve headed for a trestle around 7:45 a.m. The train was using a new, faster route that would have shaved 10 minutes off the trip. Track speed was largely around 80 mph, but a sign, visible to train crews before the abrupt curve, limited speed to 30 mph.

The NTSB said the engineer did react — just not in time.

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“About six seconds prior to the derailment,” the board said, “the engineer made a comment regarding an over speed condition.” He apparently then tried to brake.

“The engineer’s actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended,” according to the report, but it said “it did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode.”

The report concludes: “The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.”

Federal investigators say they have not yet spoken with all five members of the train crew, as several remain hospitalized. Some train cars in the scattered wreckage flipped and landed upside down while others wound up dangling from the trestle. Only the rear “pusher” locomotive was left standing on the tracks above.

Most passengers and some motorists suffered minor to major injuries, and several remain in critical condition. The three who died — all of them train buffs — have now been identified. Jim Hamre, 61, and his friend Zack Willhoite, 35, both from the Tacoma area, were riding together. They were members of All Aboard Washington, a rail enthusiasts group. Their volunteer efforts helped establish the new, faster route they died on. The third victim, Benjamin Gran, 40, of nearby Auburn, was described by a relative as “an Amtrak fan to the max.”

Many of those injured and families of some of those killed are telling their stories on GoFundMe, the online site that collects crowdfunding donations for those in need.

Bret Tomblin, Willhoite’s brother-in-law, said the Pierce County Transit employee supported his wife and mother.

“The goal of this GoFundMe is to raise money for their mortgage and bills for the next three months so we can prepare for the new normal,” Tomblin said. As of late Friday afternoon, $3,815 of a $10,000 goal had been raised.

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A teen boy, meanwhile, is well on the way to his goal. The 16-year-old identified only as Timmy suffered a compressed spinal cord and other injuries in the crash, and has undergone several surgeries. More than $37,000 of a $50,000 target has been donated, his page said Friday.

Donors have given Aaron Harris, seriously injured in the crash, well beyond his requested sum: As of Friday, over $32,000 of a $4,545 goal had been pledged in his name. A family friend said all the money would go toward his recovery and to aid his family.

Amtrak has also announced that it will cover medical expenses and other costs incurred by passengers injured or killed in the crash. The rail line and the NTSB say it will likely take a year or more for the government to complete its crash investigation and compile a report.

Anderson is a special correspondent.


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