Inslee: ‘In some sense, we were all on that train’

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DUPONT, Wash. (AP/KOIN) — Federal officials confirmed an Amtrak train was hurtling 50 mph over the speed limit when it careened off an overpass south of Seattle, spilling cars onto the highway below and killing at least three people.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said at a Monday night news conference that information from the event data recorder in the rear locomotive showed the train was traveling at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it derailed at 7:34 a.m. Mangled train cars ended up on top of each other – and one hung precariously over the freeway.

When the clanging of metal and screeching stopped at first it was quiet. Then came the screams.

After the crash, the injured called out as rescuers — including people who had been in cars on their morning freeway commute — rushed to help. One of the train passengers was Emma Shafer, who found herself at a 45-degree angle staring at the seats in front of her that had dislodged and swung around.

“It felt oddly silent after the actual crashing,” Shafer said. “Then there was people screaming because their leg was messed up … I don’t know if I actually heard the sirens, but they were there. A guy was like, ‘Hey, I’m Robert. We’ll get you out of here.'”

Dinh-Zarr said it’s not yet known what caused the train to derail and that “it’s too early to tell” why it was going so fast.

Critical safety technology designed to automatically slow or stop trains that are going too fast was not working on a section of track.

Sound Transit said Tuesday that the company was on schedule to have positive train control installed and operational in the spring, ahead of a December 2018 federal deadline.

The system would be able to take over control of a train when an engineer is distracted or incapacitated.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the “vast majority” of equipment needed had been installed but not fully operational along the tracks and trains in the 14.5-mile (23.3-kilometer) section of line where the derailment occurred.I-5 remains partly closed

Interstate 5 opened 2 southbound lanes at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, but some parts remains closed as crews continues to clear the scene. The rainy weather interfered with their progress.

Officials said it could take several days as there is still a lot of work to be done. Some of the derailed Amtrak cars have been removed — several of them have been taken to Joint Base Lewis McCord. Removing these cars is especially difficult due to the size of them.

Capt. Dan Hall with Washington State Patrol said, “One train car may be easy to strap onto with the crane and get it onto a semi. That is not the case for all of them. Each one of these cars has a unique challenge to them and the biggest responsibility and the biggest care we have right now is that our on-scene responders are safe.”

Travelers should expect significant congestion in the area.

Gov. Jay Inslee reaction

Gov. Jay Inslee spoke Tuesday afternoon from the scene of where the Amtrak train derailed. His main message focused on compassion, confidence and commitment.

“We have compassion today, we have confidence in the investigation and a firm commitment to reopen I-5,” Inslee said.

Inslee, who met with families of the victims, said “In some sense, we were all on that train.”

The governor also said that the public shouldn’t make conclusions about the cause of the accident. He said there are thousands of questions that still need to be answered and they will make sure the job gets done.

Inslee also released a statement on Wednesday saying Amtrak committed to him that they’ll pay the costs associated with Monday’s derailment and the cost of implementing PTC in trains.

“Earlier today, Transportation Secretary Roger Millar and I spoke with Richard Anderson, President and Co-CEO of Amtrak, regarding the tragic train derailment in DuPont. 

“The swift response to this tragedy has been the result of cooperation from all the involved jurisdictions. The priority has been on taking care of those on board the train and restoring access to I-5 as soon as safely possible. This response, however, does not come without financial costs. Mr. Anderson committed to me during our call that Amtrak will pay for the costs of the derailment including all the medical and incidental expenses incurred by those injured and their families, the clean-up and repair of the roadway, and the restoration of passenger rail service. This is a significant commitment and I appreciate that he has offered this support early and unequivocally.

“I also asked how Amtrak can work with its railroad partners to expedite the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). There are several entities responsible for fully implementing PTC in Washington state and Mr. Anderson committed that Amtrak would seek to make PTC operational statewide on its trains as soon as possible and before the December 31, 2018 federal deadline. 

“I want to be clear there are still many unanswered questions about how and why this incident occurred. I have confidence the NTSB’s investigation will provide those answers. Crews have made commendable progress on restoring I-5 and I ask that travelers continue to be patient as they complete opening of the lanes.”

NTSB investigation 

NTSB investigators held a press briefing Tuesday afternoon where they offered their condolences and also thanked local officials for their work.

They said they recovered the black box from the lead locomotive — which shows that the emergency brakes were automatically activated when the accident happened rather than being initiated by the engineer.

According to investigators, the engineer was in the cab with a conductor who was getting experience. They haven’t talked to any of the crew members, but have plans to set up interviews with in the next few days.

Investigators also said the train did not have PTC — positive train control. It’s an overlay system that allows technology to communicate and enforce things like speed restrictions, prevent train-to-train collisions and prevent over-speed accidents by either slowing down the train or actually stopping the train completely.

PTC wasn’t installed because the rail system has until 2018 to do so.

Crews will continue to investigate on scene for the next 7-10 days, however, they’re prepared to stay longer in order to figure out what exactly happened and why in order to prevent future accidents from happening.

More details

In 2015, an Amtrak train in Philadelphia was traveling at twice the 50 mph speed limit as it entered a sharp curve and derailed. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when the locomotive and four of the train’s seven passenger cars jumped the tracks. Several cars overturned and ripped apart.

A track chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows the maximum speed drops from 79 mph (127 kph) to 30 mph (48 kph) for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross Interstate 5, which is where the train went off the tracks.

The chart, dated Feb. 7, was submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration in anticipation of the start of passenger service along a new bypass route that shaves off 10 minutes for the trip between Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

Kimberly Reason with Sound Transit, the Seattle-area transit agency that owns the tracks, said speed signs are posted 2 miles (3 kilometers) before the speed zone changes and just before the speed zone approaching the curve.

Eric Corp, a councilman for the small city of DuPont near the derailment, said he rode the train with about 30 or so dignitaries and others on a special trip Friday before the service opened to the public Monday.

“Once we were coming up on that curve, the train slowed down considerably,” he said, adding that “in no way did it make me feel like we were going too fast.”

The train was not full. Authorities said there were 80 passengers and five on-duty crew members on board when it derailed and pulled 13 cars off the tracks. Authorities said there were three confirmed deaths. More than 70 people were taken for medical care — including 10 with serious injuries.

About two hours after the accident, a U.S. official who was briefed on the investigation said he was told at least six people were killed. The official said he had no new information to explain the discrepancy in the numbers. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

In a statement, the FBI said local police were the primary responders and there was no information suggesting “an elevated risk to Washington residents.”

In a radio transmission immediately after the accident, the conductor can be heard saying the train was coming around a corner and was crossing a bridge that passed over Interstate 5 when it derailed.

Dispatch audio also indicated that the engineer survived with bleeding from the head and both eyes swollen shut.

“I’m still figuring that out. We’ve got cars everywhere and down onto the highway,” he tells the dispatcher, who asks if everyone is OK.

Aleksander Kristiansen, a 24-year-old exchange student at the University of Washington from Copenhagen, was going to Portland to visit the city for the day.

“I was just coming out of the bathroom when the accident happened. My car just started shaking really, really badly,” he said.

The back of his train car was wide open because it had separated from the rest of the train, so he and others were able to jump out to safety.

The train was making the inaugural run on the new route as part of a $180.7 million project designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound that’s bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.

The new bypass was built on an existing inland rail line that runs along Interstate 5 from Tacoma to DuPont, near where Train 501 derailed.

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