About 6 a.m. Monday, the Amtrak Cascades Train 501 rolled out of Seattle for an inaugural trip: the first run with passengers on a new rail line promising faster trips to Portland, at faster-than-freeway speeds.
“Wow this train is fast,” tweeted Chris Karnes, the chairman of Pierce County’s transit advisory board, as the train sped through the morning darkness with seven crew members and 77 passengers aboard. “Once you leave downtown Tacoma it’s 79 mph to Portland. We are passing up traffic on I-5.”
Then, about 40 miles south of Seattle, some passengers heard creaking and began to feel the cars rock. The train was derailing. Thirteen of the 14 cars leapt from their tracks near a bridge over Interstate 5, with some plummeting toward the rush-hour traffic below.
“I was sleeping,” said one passenger, Charles Karr of Portland. “Then I was flying through the air. None of us could believe what was happening.”
Train cars collided with five automobiles and two semi-trucks, injuring some of the drivers. Inside the train, passengers were thrown from their seats as the cabin lights flickered out. At least one train car came to rest upside down, while two others dangled from the overpass.
After the mayhem ended, at least three train occupants were dead and an untold number were injured. Train cars laid scattered around the tracks like spilled timber as concerned freeway drivers came to a halt. The survivors were left to crawl out of darkened compartments or to break through windows to escape, some with cuts, bruises and broken bones.
Officials had no immediate explanation for the derailment, which will now be the focus of an intensive National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
“Amtrak 501, emergency, emergency, emergency, we are on the ground,” a crew member said in a publicly available call to 911 immediately after the crash.
“Hey, guys, what happened?” the dispatcher said.
“We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 right north of Nisqually and we went on the ground.”
“OK. Is everybody OK?”
“I’m still figuring that out,” the crew member said. “We’ve got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.”
When asked for the mile post location of the train’s crash, the crew member gave an estimate, and then added, “As soon as I know exactly where all my train is, I’ll let you know."
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called the derailment tragic and declared a state of emergency in in Pierce and Thurston counties. President Trump’s first public response was to use the incident to push for Congress to support a long-promised infrastructure plan that has not yet materialized.
“The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” Trump tweeted. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
Shortly later, the president added: “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the train accident in DuPont, Washington. Thank you to all of our wonderful First Responders who are on the scene. We are currently monitoring here at the White House.”
Along with many other factors, including train speed, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are likely to examine the work done on the new, $181-million bypass Monday where the train derailed. It was designed to speed travel times by separating passenger trains and freight traffic south of Tacoma.
The Amtrak Cascades train service is jointly owned by the states of Washington and Oregon, with operation of the trains contracted to Amtrak. Before the new tracks opened, Amtrak trains shared a curving route along the Puget Sound coastline with nearly 50 freight trains a day.
The new 14.5-mile bypass route, owned by Sound Transit, had previously served military and cargo transit but was upgraded to higher-speed passenger service with the help of funds from the Federal Railroad Administration, which monitored some of the work, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The department said that the tracks had undergone weeks of inspection and testing before opening to passengers Monday.
“Today is the first day these tracks were used,” Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said during a televised news conference. “This would have been first trip, first train, first day.”
The precariousness of the disaster scene also meant the temporary shutdown of Interstate 5, a major artery. Officials had to make sure the derailed cars were stable enough to board before they could check for more casualties. None of the dead were identified on Monday night, and officials didn’t give an estimate on the number of injured.
"We will do everything in our power to support these passengers, our employees and their families,” Amtrak said in a statement. “At this time, we will not speculate about the cause, and we encourage others not to speculate as well.”
People involved in the accident gathered at DuPont City Hall, with memories of the derailment still fresh.
Karr, the rider from Portland, recalled seeing a person who'd been thrown from the train. “I think he was OK, though,” Karr said. “He was gone when I got out there.”
Passenger Anthony Raimondi said the train began tipping, then “everything went dark and stuff was flying around.” He kicked out a window to escape.
A young woman who gave her name as Lindy said, “This isn't my first train ride, but it might be my last.”