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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Passengers may have been thrown from Spokane-bound Amtrak train during deadly derailment

Sept. 27, 2021 Updated Mon., Sept. 27, 2021 at 9:23 p.m.

Workers stand near train tracks and next to overturned cars Monday from an Amtrak train that derailed Saturday, near Joplin, Mont., killing three people and injuring others.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Workers stand near train tracks and next to overturned cars Monday from an Amtrak train that derailed Saturday, near Joplin, Mont., killing three people and injuring others. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Passengers may have been thrown from an Amtrak train as it derailed Saturday in north central Montana, leaving three people dead and seven others hospitalized.

Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the 14-person team of investigators that arrived at the scene Sunday was looking “very carefully” at “the possibility that some passengers may have been ejected from the train in the course of the crash,” while emphasizing that a preliminary report on the derailment won’t be released for about a month.

Speaking to reporters in Chester, about 10 miles west of the crash site near the town of Joplin, Landsberg said the NTSB investigation team had recovered the “black box” that records video both inside and in front of the locomotive and would review that information, interview the train’s crew and collect a range of other evidence over the course of about a week.

“The role of NTSB is to figure out what happened, why it happened and then to make recommendations on how to prevent it,” Landsberg said. “Our job is strictly to gather the facts.”

The train was traveling on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” route from Chicago to Spokane, where it would have split into separate trains heading to Seattle and Portland, when it derailed in north-central Montana around 4 p.m. local time on Saturday about 50 miles west of Havre. Approximately 141 passengers and 17 crew members were on board at the time of the crash, according to Amtrak.

Two locomotives pulled the train’s 10 cars, eight of which derailed, with some turning on their sides and sliding hundreds of yards before coming to a stop, lead NTSB investigator Jim Southworth estimated. Landsberg said the train derailed before it arrived at a switch that splits the track into a siding.

Landsberg said the train was traveling between 75 and 78 mph when it derailed on a gradual curve, just under the 79-mph speed limit on that stretch of track, which is owned and maintained by BNSF Railway and was last inspected by the company Sept. 23.

Amtrak operates nearly all of its long-distance routes outside the Northeast on track owned by private railways.

A BNSF freight train had run on the same stretch of track about 80 minutes before the derailment, Landsberg said, and the NTSB team was reviewing forward-facing video from that train’s locomotive “frame by frame” for any hint of what could have gone wrong when the Amtrak train arrived.

Because the crash happened on a single stretch of track and the cars can’t be removed until the initial phase of the investigation is complete, other train traffic will remain backed up in both directions until the track is cleared and repaired.

“We’re sensitive to the fact that railroad is a critical lifeblood, and we want to get the goods and services moving as soon as we’ve completed the investigation,” Landsberg said. After the NTSB team completes its week of on-site work, he said, BNSF will repair the rail and trains will be able to run again in that area.

Landsberg said the investigators’ preliminary report should be released in about 30 days, with a full report that includes a probable cause of the crash released later.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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