An Amtrak train making the first-ever run along a faster new route hurtled off an overpass Monday near Tacoma and spilled some of its cars onto the highway below, killing at least six people, authorities said. The death toll was expected to rise.
Seventy-eight passengers and five crew members were aboard when the train moving at more than 80 mph derailed about 40 miles south of Seattle on a route that had raised safety concerns.
An official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press that preliminary signs indicate that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to on the condition of anonymity.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said several vehicles on Interstate 5 were struck by falling train cars and multiple motorists were injured. No fatalities of motorists were reported.
Chris Karnes was on the train, three or four cars back from the front. He said the only part of the train remaining on the tracks was the rear locomotive. Several cars were hanging over the overpass.
The possibility that the wreck was caused by something on the tracks fed into concerns voiced by local officials about the risk of high-speed trains crossing busy streets. The mayor of a town near the derailment had warned about the danger of an accident at a public meeting only two weeks ago.
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Daniel Konzelman, 24, was driving parallel to the train on his way to work as an accountant in Olympia. He was about 30 seconds ahead of the train on the freeway when he saw it derail.
Konzelman, who was driving with a friend, said he pulled off the freeway and then ran down along the tracks and over the bridge to get to the scene. They saw three cars and a semi-truck on the freeway that had been damaged by the derailment. There were train cars with their roofs ripped off, or that were tipped upside down, on both sides of the track or turned sideways on the bridge.
They climbed into train cars and found people hurt — some pinned underneath the train, others who appeared to be dead, he said. If they were mobile and seemed stable, he helped them climb out. If they appeared seriously hurt, he tried to comfort them by talking to them.
“I just wanted to help people because I would want people to help me,” he said. “I’m an Eagle Scout. I have a lot of first-aid training and emergency response training.”
They stayed for nearly two hours before hitting the road again.
“I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. I saw a little bit of both,” he said.
President Trump used the deadly derailment to call for more infrastructure spending in a tweet sent about three hours after the accident. He said the wreck, on a newly completed bypass, shows “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly.”
The train was making the inaugural run on the new route as part of a $180.7 million project designed to speed up service by removing passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound that’s bogged down by curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.
The Amtrak schedule called for the train to leave Seattle around 6 a.m. and arrive in Portland about 3 1/2 hours later.
The new route includes a bypass built on an existing inland rail line that runs along Interstate 5 from Tacoma to DuPont, near where Train 501 derailed. Track testing was completed in January and February in advance of Monday’s launch, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The mayor of Lakewood, Washington, a city along the new route, predicted a deadly crash — but one involving a fast-moving train hitting a car or pedestrian at a grade-crossing. At a recent public meeting, he called on state planners to build overpass-like rail structures instead of having trains cross busy streets.
“Come back when there is that accident and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements,” Anderson said, according to Seattle television station KOMO. “Or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said a team of investigators was on its way to the scene from Washington, D.C.
A spokesman for Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia said his hospital had received 11 patients. Chris Thomas did not know their specific conditions. Two patients were in the operating room as of early morning, one of them in serious condition, he said.
The train was going 81.1 mph moments before the derailment, according to transitdocs.com, a website that maps Amtrak train locations and speeds using data from the railroad’s train tracker app.
The maximum speed along the stretch of track, known as Point Defiance Bypass, is 79 mph, according to information about the project posted online by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
All southbound lanes of I-5 were closed south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and motorists were being warned to avoid the area.
The Associated Press contributed to this article