JOPLIN, Mont. – At least three people were killed Saturday afternoon when an Amtrak train that runs between Seattle and Chicago and stops in Spokane derailed in north-central Montana, an official with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office said.
Dispatcher Starr Tyler told the Associated Press that three people died in the derailment. She did not have more details. Amtrak said in a statement that there were multiple injuries.
The Empire Builder train derailed at 4 p.m. near Joplin, a town of about 200, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said in a statement. The accident scene is about 150 miles north of Helena and about 30 miles from the border with Canada.
The lauded cross-country route just restarted in May after a pandemic pause. The scenic trip with 29 stops, including Spokane, has long been a favorite of train enthusiasts and was revived with coronavirus aid Congress passed.
The train had about 146 passengers and 16 crew members onboard, Abrams said.
The train consisted of two locomotives and 10 cars, with seven of those cars derailing, he said.
Megan Vandervest, a passenger on the train who was going to visit a friend in Seattle, told The New York Times that she was awakened by the derailment.
“My first thought was that we were derailing because, to be honest, I have anxiety and I had heard stories about trains derailing,” said Vandervest, who is from Minneapolis. “My second thought was that’s crazy. We wouldn’t be derailing. Like, that doesn’t happen.”
She told the Times that the car behind hers was tilted over, the one behind that was entirely tipped over, and the three cars behind that “had completely fallen off the tracks and were detached from the train.”
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Center, where passengers were being taken, Vandervest said it felt like “extreme turbulence on a plane.”
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help the passengers.
Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a local school.
“I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,” she said. “They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.”
A grocery store in Chester, about 5 miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
The passengers were taken by buses to hotels in nearby Shelby, said Ghekiere, whose husband works for the local emergency services agency and was alerted to the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a 14-member team, including investigators and specialists in railroad signals and other disciplines, to investigate the crash, spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Amtrak was working with the local authorities to transport injured passengers and safely evacuate all other passengers, Abrams added.
Photos posted to social media showed several cars on their sides. Passengers were standing alongside the tracks, some carrying luggage.
The images showed sunny skies, and it appeared the accident occurred along a straight section of tracks.
Weiss said the derailment occurred around 3:55 p.m. and no other trains or equipment were involved. The train was traveling on a BNSF Railway main track at the time, he said.
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment, or a combination of both.
Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said.
“I would be surprised if this was a human-factor derailment,” Zarembski said.
Depending on how complex the cause of the derailment was, NTSB findings may take months, he added, as investigators must interview witnesses and sift through the pile-up and damage to collect evidence and then send samples off for further testing.
Amtrak said that because of the derailment, the Sunday westbound Empire Builder will terminate in Minneapolis, and the Sunday eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in Minneapolis.
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