JOPLIN, Mont. – Federal investigators are investigating the cause of an Amtrak train derailment near a switch on tracks amid vast farmland in far north Montana that killed three people and left seven hospitalized during of the weekend.
The westbound Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it rolled off the track around 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200 people. Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the train was carrying around 141 passengers and 16 crew members. There were two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, some falling onto their side.
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” several hundred feet high.
“I started looking at this, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train had rolled over and derailed,” said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get the cars out. people. He called his brother to bring ladders for people who could not get down after exiting through the windows of sideways cars.
Passenger Jacob Cordeiro from Rhode Island was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate his graduation from college.
“I was in one of the cars in front and we were pushed hard, thrown from one side of the train to the other,” he told MSNBC. He said the car left the track near a switch where two tracks narrowed to one but did not overturn.
“I’m a pretty tall guy and he lifted me up from my chair and threw me against one wall and then threw me into the other wall,” Cordeiro said.
Rail safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the switch and continued on the main track. , but the other eight cars derailed. He said it was not clear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.
“Did the switch play a role? It could be that the front of the train hit the switch and started to fishtail and the rear end of the train tipped over, ”said 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.
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. .
The railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of nationwide positive train control, Zarembski said.
Matt Jones, a spokesperson for the BNSF Railway, told a press conference that the track where the crash occurred was last inspected on Thursday.
A team of 14 members of the National Transportation Safety Board, including investigators and rail signaling specialists, will investigate the cause of the crash on a BNSF railroad tracks, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Law enforcement said on Sunday that NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF officials were at the crash scene just west of Joplin, where the tracks crossed vast fields of recently golden brown wheat. harvested. Several large cranes were brought to the tracks that run roughly parallel to US Highway 2, along with a gravel truck and new railroad ties.
The site is located 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 d ’emergency’ to determine what happened.
As a result of the derailment, the Empire Builder westbound from Chicago ended in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the eastbound train departed Minnesota.
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 get the line up and running as quickly as possible,” he said.
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, emergency services coordinator. of Liberty County. 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.
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until loved ones were notified.