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Amtrak 501 survivor: I still have nightmares

It’s been nearly five months since Amtrak Cascades 501 derailed in DuPont during the inaugural run of the new high-speed service between Seattle and Portland on the Point Defiance Bypass, killing three people and injuring more than 60 others.

Nathan Rich waited 10 years to take the ride. He and his girlfriend were thrilled when they boarded Amtrak 501 in Tukwila the morning of December 18.

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“I’ve been a train lover just about all of my life and I wanted to be on the first train on the new route. We were heading south and we did our station stop and then everything was fine and dandy and then all of a sudden just, the world just came apart.”

At 7:33 a.m., 12 cars and the lead locomotive went off the tracks and plunged onto I-5 after taking a 30-mile-an-hour curve at nearly 80 mph.

And that’s when the 911 calls started coming in.

911 caller: “Hi. An Amtrak train fell off the overpass.”

Dispatcher: “At least 12 bodies on the tracks and several vehicles under the train.”

911 caller 2: “I am the only car besides a semi that made it through the train derailment. I was right at the front when it came.”

Dispatchers: “Just send everything we’ve got. A passenger train that could be [inaudible] 100 hurt and injured. [OK] send everything you’ve got.”

Rich remembers the crash clearly.

“It felt like it hopped off the rails and the bounced along the tires for a bit and then there was a real hard lurch to the left and then gravity gave out and my only overriding thought was I need to stay inside this thing or I’m going to die or I’m going to end up out on the freeway and thankfully I did. And when we finally came to rest and stopped crashing I was right in the end of our car and my leg going behind my head kind of wedged myself into the small hallway and I landed on the ceiling because our car was upside down.”

Rich and his girlfriend were both injured.

Several weeks ago, they were contacted by Amtrak about plans to remove the wreckage from JBLM by mid-April. They received an invite to view the wreckage along with other survivors before it was removed.

Rich and his girlfriend went on that tour in late March with a handful of other survivors.

“There’s kind of a certain strange bond of camaraderie for everybody having gone through this event. It was a really serious event.”

And when Rich got an up-close look at the mangled wreckage, he says it made it “hit home really hard.”

“…. to see it up close and personal and to see all of the twisted aluminum and steel and you know the seats that are just thrown everywhere. The yellow step boxes that they use to bring people on and off the train are just smashed and broken glass just everywhere.”

Rich was especially struck by a debris field from the wreckage.

“You can see a tire, a hunk of a truck bed, pieces of the bridge and especially the twisted-up train car axle … it’s just an amazing amount of force that went into that. It shows you that the train had a lot of force in it just going down the track but then when that force gets misdirected it just goes everywhere and into places that it’s not supposed to be … and that’s the result.”

Rich admits it was an emotional experience.

Report: Employees raised concerns before train derailment

“Because one of the fatalities that happened was on our train car. It’s a sobering thought to know that I was that close. I do still think about it a lot. I still have nightmares every once in a while about thinking how, you know, almost feeling guilty about not being able to stop it but I know that I am powerless.”

He’s been paying attention to the details of the ongoing NTSB investigation that have come out in the months since the derailment, including details about how fast the train was going when it took the 30 mph curve and the fact that the engineer apparently failed to slow for the curve because he missed the speed limit warnings.

“I blame the engineer because he is the one that should know where he is. It was in one of the statements that he didn’t know where he was for two miles. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever been driving where I didn’t know where I was by two miles, especially on something like that where there is a speed restriction coming up. That’s something where you have to know where it is.”

Rich believes Amtrak also failed to conduct enough training for the new route.

Despite his terrifying experience in the derailment of Amtrak 501, Rich says he has every intention of being a passenger on the first “real” ride south of the high-speed train when service resumes, providing it also has the Positive Train Control safety system in use.

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