An Amtrak train was travelling 50 mph over the speed limit when it careened off an overpass south of Seattle, killing at least three people, federal officials confirmed.
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.
The train’s speed and the posted speed limit are likely to be key points for federal accident investigators, who are trying to determine why the train — on its inaugural run — flew off the track and caused several rail cars to plunge off a bridge overpass and onto a traffic-clogged interstate at 7:34 a.m Monday.
Mangled train cars ended up on top of each other – and one hung precariously over the freeway after the train derailed.
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.
Positive train control — the technology that can slow or stop a speeding train — wasn’t in use on this stretch of track, according to Amtrak President Richard Anderson.
At least five vehicles on I-5 were struck by derailed train cars tumbling down from the tracks above, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“We have multiple fatals on the train, no fatals on the roadway,” Troyer said. Authorities say there are three confirmed deaths. City of DuPont Fire Chief Larry Creekmore also says more than 100 patients were transported for treatment. Hospital officials said at least two people were in critical condition and 11 others were seriously injured.
Authorities said 77 passengers and seven crew members were on board.
Transitdocs.com, which maps train speeds using data from Amtrak’s train tracker app, said moments before the derailment the train was going 81.1 mph. A track chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation shows the maximum speed drops from 79 mph to 30 mph for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross I-5.
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.’”
Amtrak Train 501 left Seattle at 6 a.m. local time as a new and controversial, high-speed service to Portland designed to avoid sharp curves, freight traffic and other obstacles that could slow the trip.
The state Transportation Department said federal funds were used to upgrade the tracks for passenger train use and that the Federal Railroad Administration had monitored the work.
The new improved tracks were not welcomed by some local officials. The city of Lakewood filed a lawsuit in 2013 to fight against the Point Defiance Bypass, arguing state transportation officials hadn’t done a sufficient environmental assessment. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out by a judge, but bitterness remains.
“It’s virtually inevitable that someone is going to get killed that wouldn’t get killed otherwise,” Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said at a Dec. 4 meeting to discuss the opening of the line.