JOPLIN, Mont. – Federal officials sent a team of National Transportation Safety Board investigators to 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 on its way to Seattle from Chicago, with two locomotives and 10 cars, when it rolled off the track around 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200 people.
The train carried around 141 passengers and 16 crew members 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 of the BNSF railway that did not involve any other train or equipment. NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
The crash site is approximately 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of Helena and approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Canadian border.
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 intensive care, another 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.
Robbin said residents in the surrounding area rushed to offer help when the derailment occurred.
“We are so lucky to live where we live, where the neighbors help the neighbors,” she said.
Amtrak said it has sent emergency personnel and other officials to the site to assist passengers, employees and local officials. He said company officials were “deeply saddened” to learn of the deaths.
Due to the derailment, the Empire Builder westbound from Chicago will end in Minneapolis, and the eastbound train will depart from Minneapolis.
Passenger Megan Vandervest told the New York Times that she was awakened by the derailment.
“My first thought was that we were derailed because, to be honest, I have anxiety and had heard stories of trains going off the rails,” said Vandervest, of Minneapolis. “My second thought was, it’s crazy. We wouldn’t be going off the rails. Like, that doesn’t happen.”
She told The Times that the car behind hers was tilted, the one behind that had overturned, and the three cars behind that “completely fell off the rails and pulled away from the train.”
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Center, where some passengers were being taken, Vandervest said it sounded like “extreme turbulence on a plane.”
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help.
Chester City Councilor Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped around 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school.
“I went to school and helped with water, food, wiping dirt from faces,” she said. “They looked tired, shaken up but happy to be where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending on where they were on the train.”
A grocery store in Chester, about five miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
The passengers were taken by bus to hotels near Shelby, said Ghekiere, whose husband works for the local emergency services agency and has been alerted to the crash.
Photos on social media showed wagons on their side and passengers standing along the tracks, some carrying luggage. The footage showed sunny skies and it appeared that the accident had occurred along a straight section of track.
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 railroad or equipment, or a combination of the two.
Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of nationwide positive train control, Zarembski said.
“I would be surprised if this was a human factor derailment,” Zarembski said.
NTSB conclusions could take months, he added.
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.
“There are still human performance issues being looked at by the NTSB to make sure the people doing the job are qualified, rested and doing it right,” Chipkevich said.
Chipkevich said track conditions have always been a major cause of train accidents. He noted that most of the tracks used by Amtrak are owned and operated by freight railways for safety maintenance.
Other recent Amtrak derailments include:
– April 3, 2016: Two maintenance workers were struck and killed by an Amtrak train traveling over 100 mph in Chester, Pennsylvania. The lead locomotive of the train derailed.
– March 14, 2016: An Amtrak train traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago derailed in southwestern Kansas, derailing five cars and injuring at least 32 people. Investigators concluded that a feed delivery truck struck the track and moved it at least 30 cm before the derailment.
– October 5, 2015: A passenger train from Vermont to Washington, DC derailed when it struck rocks that had fallen on the track from a ledge. The locomotive and a passenger car spilled onto an embankment, derailing three other cars and injuring seven people.
– May 12, 2015: Amtrak train 188 was traveling at twice the 50 mph speed limit when it entered a tight bend in Philadelphia and derailed. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when the locomotive and four of the train’s seven cars hit the tracks. Several cars overturned and torn apart.
Snow reported from Phoenix. Associated Press editors Tom Krisher in Detroit, Martha Bellisle in Seattle, and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed.
startribune Gt Itly