By AMY BETH HANSON, MARTHA BELLISLE and ANITA SNOW, Associated Press
JOPLIN, Mont. (AP) – A team of National Transportation Safety Board investigators were at the site of an Amtrak derailment in north-central Montana that left three people dead and seven others hospitalized on Sunday, officials said.
The westbound Empire Builder was en route from Chicago to Seattle when it rolled off the tracks around 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200 people.
Trevor Fossen was the first on the scene. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road near the tracks on Saturday when he saw “a wall of dust” about 300 feet high.
âI started looking at this, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train had rolled over and derailed,â said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get the cars out. people. He called his brother to bring ladders for the people who couldn’t. t get out after exiting through the windows of sideways cars.
The train carried around 141 passengers and 16 crew and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.
A 14-member team including investigators and rail signal specialists would investigate the cause of the derailment on a main track on the BNSF railway that did not involve any other train or equipment, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Law enforcement said officials from the NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF arrived at the crash scene just west of Joplin, where the tracks crossed vast fields of recently harvested golden brown wheat. . Several large cranes were brought onto the tracks that run roughly parallel to US Highway 2, along with a gravel truck and new railroad ties.
Several cars were still visible on their sides.
The crash site is approximately 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of Helena and approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Canadian border.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn expressed his condolences to those who have lost loved ones and said the company is working with the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing their “sentiment of ’emergency’ to determine what happened.
“The NTSB will identify the cause (s) of this accident, and Amtrak is committed to taking appropriate action to prevent a similar accident in the future,” Flynn said in the statement.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said the BNSF is preparing a replacement lead for when the NTSB gives the green light. “The BNSF assured me that it could put the line in place as soon as possible,” he said.
Rail safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said photos from the crash site show the derailment occurred at or near a switch , where the railway changes from single track to double track.
Clarke said both locomotives and the two cars at the front of the train reached the slot and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was not clear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.
âDid the switch play a role? It could be that the front of the train struck the switch and started to fishtail and the rear end of the train tipped over, âsaid Clarke.
Another possibility was a fault in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing does not always detect such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor as trains on this line are fitted with systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions.
Matt Jones, a spokesperson for the BNSF Railway, told a press conference that the track where the crash occurred was last inspected on Thursday.
As a result of the derailment, the Empire Builder westbound from Chicago will end in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the eastbound train will depart from Minnesota.
Most of the people on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but five more seriously injured people remained at Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, MT, said Sarah Robbin, service coordinator Liberty County emergency. Two were in the intensive care unit, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Two other people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, MT, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.
Robbin said emergency crews struggled unsuccessfully to cut open cars with special tools, “so they had to manually carry a lot of passengers who couldn’t walk.”
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until loved ones were notified.
Robbin said residents in the surrounding area rushed to offer help when the derailment occurred.
âWe are so lucky to live where we live, where the neighbors help the neighbors,â she said.
âThe locals have been so amazing and accommodating,â passenger Jacob Cordeiro said on Twitter. âThey provided us with food, drink and wonderful hospitality. Nothing like it when the best comes together after a tragedy.
Cordeiro, originally from Rhode Island, just graduated from college and was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate.
“I was in one of the cars in front and we were really pushed around, thrown from side to side of the train,” he told MSNBC. He said the car left the tracks but did not fall.
âI’m a pretty tall guy and he lifted me off my chair and threw me against one wall and then threw me into the other wall,â Cordeiro said.
Chester City Councilor Rachel Ghekiere said she and others had helped around 50 to 60 passengers who were taken to a school.
A grocery store in Chester, about five miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s railway engineering and safety program, said he did not want to speculate but suspected the derailment was due to a problem with the track, equipment, or both. .
Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of nationwide positive train control, Zarembski said. He said the NTSB’s findings could take months.
Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw railway accident investigations for several years at the NTSB, said the agency would not rule out human error or any other potential cause at this time.
âThere are still human performance issues that the NTSB is looking at to ensure that the people doing the work are qualified, rested, and doing it correctly,â Chipkevich said.
Chipkevich said the condition of the tracks has always been a major cause of train accidents and noted that most of the tracks used by Amtrak are owned by freight railways and must depend on these companies to maintain safety. .
Bellisle reported from Seattle and Snow reported from Phoenix. Associated Press editors Tom Krisher in Detroit and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina contributed reporting.
This story has been corrected to show that the train was traveling from Chicago to Seattle. Also corrects Minneapolis in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Amtrak station is located.
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