(TNS) - At least three people were killed after an Amtrak train derailed and fell off a bridge over Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia.
Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told news media that there were fatalities on the train and that motorists had been injured, but not killed. The extent of the injuries is not yet known.
There were 78 passengers and five crew members on the train when it derailed, according to Amtrak.
The southbound lanes of Interstate 5 were completely blocked by the train.
Chris Thomas, spokesman for Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, said that his hospital had received about a dozen patients as of 9:25 a.m.
“We’ve had three critical patients out of about a dozen that we’ve received so far,” Thomas said.
As the wreck occurred in between Olympia and Tacoma, emergency medical responders were transporting patients to various area hospitals, he said.
Amtrak is telling people who need information about their friends or family who might have been on the train to call 1-800-523-9101.
“Because traffic is so backed up, a lot of the EMS responders are taking patients to hospitals in Tacoma,” Thomas said.
Madigan Army Medical Center was serving as the primary hospital receiving patients from the train wreck, a spokeswoman said, though as of 9 a.m., the army hospital had not released information on the number of patients received.
“We don’t have any information at the moment; we’re gathering it,” said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Amtrak tweeted that it was train No. 501 on an inaugural run, which left Seattle for Portland at 6 a.m., that derailed.
According to WSDOT, the train was running down a new bypass created to avoid slow curves and “single track tunnels on the BNSF Railway main line tracks near Point Defiance and along southern Puget Sound.”
The project rerouted passenger trains to an inland route on an existing rail line that runs along the west side of I-5 through south Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont and then reconnects back to the BNSF Railway main line near Nisqually on the east side of I-5.
Monday morning was the first time Amtrak trains used the new Point Defiance Bypass route. It was the culmination of a $181 million project that began in 2010. A new Amtrak station also opened in Tacoma. The change would reduce the length of the trip by 10 minutes and separate Amtrak trains from freight lines that frequently cause delays on the Point Defiance route.
Last week, Joint Base Lewis-McChord posted a warning on Twitter saying, “trains traveling about 80 miles per hour begin running on the tracks along the JBLM I-5 corridor on Dec. 18.”
WSDOT doesn’t have any theory yet about what caused the derailment, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the WSDOT’s rail division.
There are no switches or road crossings in the immediate area, she said. However, the corridor in general passes through many neighborhoods and roads.
“We’re still trying to figure out the cause,” Matkin said.
Chris Karnes, a transit and train advocate from Tacoma, was heading down to Portland, Ore. to do some Christmas shopping with his boyfriend. He said he was in the train’s third or fourth car.
“Our new Amtrak station was opening up in Tacoma, so I wanted o be on the first train out,” he said.
Karnes said the train seemed to be traveling normally at about 79 mph, the operational speed along that stretch of track. Then he felt the train track.
“It was a split second between that and being launched into the seats in front of us. Those really cushioned the blow for us,” he said.
During the collision, Karnes’ train car “careened off an embankment,” he said.
“We could hear crumpling and crashing and screaming from people. The lights went out,” he said.
Karnes said he and other passengers had to kick out a window to get out of the train and jump into some bushes onto an embankment that led down to Interstate 5.
“There was one person who was injured in our car, and I was sent to go find help for them. They were breathing but not conscious,” he said.
One man was lying on the ground on the embankment, Karnes said. “It looked like he might have been thrown from the train.”
Then, Karnes remembers seeing emergency responders rushing to a train car that had flipped over onto Interstate 5.
Karnes, who was calling from a medical tent, said he saw multiple people carried out on stretchers with neck braces.
“There are people who seem to have concussions. There’s a lot of blood on their faces,” he said.
Karnes, himself, said his back was hurting, but he was “fine in comparison with some of the people here.”
Maria Hetland was driving to work on northbound Interstate 5 when traffic suddenly slowed.
“As we were coming up the hill I rolled my window down and saw the train,” she said. “It was awful.”
Hetland said cars had stopped on the freeway and she could see people walking around on the roadway. Some people were sitting on the roadside draped in blankets.
“I didn’t see anybody climbing out of the train,” Hetland said.
As she passed, Hetland took a few photos.
One train car was beneath the bridge sitting parallel to the roadway, Hetland said. Another train car was dangling from a rail bridge that crosses I-5 horizontally.
“I don’t know how that train fell off that bridge. There’s a whole railing, a wall,” she said. “I don’t know how it crashed through the wall.”
Hetland said she could see some steam or smoke, but did not see any fire. She continued driving.
“I pulled over later and had a little meltdown and looked at my pictures,” she said. “It’s really upsetting. It’s like something from a movie.”
Hetland said she had seen work being done on the tracks over the summer.
Lucas Ledford said he passed the scene of the wreck as he drove south on I-5 on his way to work in Tumwater.
“There was a (train) car that was coming off the overpass,” said Ledford, 30. “It was a passenger train, it slammed into a semi-truck …”
(Seattle Times staff reporters Lewis Kamb and David Gutman contributed to this report.)
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