Updated: Sept. 26, 10:05 a.m.
At least three people died Saturday when an Amtrak train that runs from Chicago and the Twin Cities to Seattle derailed in north-central Montana, toppling several cars onto their sides, authorities said.
The westbound Empire Builder train derailed about 4 p.m. near Joplin, a town of about 200, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said in a statement. The derailment scene is about 150 miles northeast of Helena and about 30 miles from the border with Canada.
Liberty County sheriff's dispatcher Starr Tyler told the Associated Press that three people died in the derailment. She did not have more details. Amtrak said in a statement that there were multiple injuries.
The train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew members onboard, Abrams said. The train had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, he said.
“We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident,” Abrams said.
The westbound Empire Builder originates in Chicago and makes several stops in Minnesota, including in St. Paul.
Megan Vandervest, a passenger who was going to visit a friend in Seattle, told the New York Times that she was awakened by the derailment.
“My first thought was that we were derailing because, to be honest, I have anxiety and I had heard stories about trains derailing,” said Vandervest, who is from Minneapolis. “My second thought was that’s crazy. We wouldn’t be derailing. Like, that doesn’t happen.”
She told the Times that the car behind hers was tilted, the one behind that was tipped over, and the three cars behind that “had completely fallen off the tracks and were detached from the train.”
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Center, where some passengers were being taken, Vandervest said it felt like “extreme turbulence on a plane.”
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help the passengers.
Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a local school.
“I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,” she said. “They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.”
A grocery store in Chester, about 5 miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
The passengers were taken by buses to hotels in nearby Shelby, said Ghekiere, whose husband works for the local emergency services agency and was alerted to the crash. Amtrak said people with questions about friends or family members who were on the affected train can call (800) 523-9101.
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a 14-member team, including investigators and specialists in railroad signals and other disciplines, to investigate the crash, spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Weiss said the derailment occurred around 3:55 p.m. and no other trains or equipment were involved. The train was traveling on a BNSF Railway main track at the time, he said.
Photos posted to social media showed rail cars on their sides and passengers standing alongside the tracks, some carrying luggage. The images showed sunny skies, and it appeared the accident occurred along a straight section of tracks.
Amtrak said that because of the derailment, the Sunday westbound Empire Builder will terminate in the Twin Cities, and the Sunday eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in the Twin Cities.
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment, or a combination of both.
Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said.
“I would be surprised if this was a human-factor derailment,” Zarembski said.
Depending on how complex the cause of the derailment was, NTSB findings may take months, he added, as investigators must interview witnesses and sift through the pile-up and damage to collect evidence and then send samples off for further testing.
Other recent Amtrak derailments include:
April 3, 2016: Two maintenance workers were struck and killed by an Amtrak train going more than 100 mph in Chester, Pennsylvania. The lead engine of the train derailed.
March 14, 2016: An Amtrak train traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago derailed in southwest Kansas, sending five cars off the tracks and injuring at least 32 people. Investigators concluded that a cattle feed delivery truck hit the track and shifted it at least a foot before the derailment.
Oct. 5, 2015: A passenger train headed from Vermont to Washington, D.C., derailed when it hit rocks that had fallen onto the track from a ledge. The locomotive and a passenger car spilled down 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 as it entered a sharp curve in Philadelphia and derailed. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when the locomotive and four of the train’s seven passenger cars jumped the tracks. Several cars overturned and ripped apart.
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