Remembering the Amtrak 501 derailment a year later
It was one year ago today, when an Amtrak train with 83 passengers and crew embarked on its inaugural run along the new Point Defiance Bypass for Cascade service between Seattle and Portland.
The excitement had been building for weeks, but shortly after the train left a stop in Tacoma, it derailed over I-5.
KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott caught up with one of the survivors and the attorney handling some of the dozens of lawsuits filed since.
Nathan Rich was one of several train enthusiasts on Amtrak 501 and he could not have been more excited.
“I’ve been a train lover all of my life and I had been watching this project because it was a pretty major big deal that they were going to be changing the route away from the water to along the freeway,” Rich said. “I wanted to be on this train with my girlfriend — we made plans to head down to Portland and do some shopping, and we didn’t make it to Portland; we ended up on I-5 instead.”
They were not alone. At 7:33 a.m. as the train headed into a curve just over I-5 near DuPont, the excitement turned to horror. Twelve cars and the lead locomotive went off the tracks and plunged onto I-5 after taking a 30 mph curve at nearly 80 mph. Three people were killed, and more than 60 were injured, including Nathan and his girlfriend.
“My girlfriend did sustain a concussion and she’s still dealing with the after effects of that,” Rich said. “I’ve been dealing with some back problems since then — I had my leg put behind my head and tore my hamstring, and I’ve been dealing with that also.”
But for Nathan, it was more than the physical injuries.
“Psychologically, it’s also been an injury,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with nightmares. I have taken the train since, and that was a difficult experience for me. If we go around the corner and it seems like it’s too fast, it definitely plays with my mind — I see things that aren’t actually happening.”
After the derailment, the service to Portland reverted to the old route along the water. Nathan has taken that trip three times in the past year.
The last time, the flashbacks kicked in.
We were coming into Winlock, and it seemed like we stopped a little fast. As I’m sitting there in the train car I’m watching the person in front of me have their clothes ripped off, and the car does a barrel roll inside of my mind, with the lights going out and dirt flying everywhere, basically reliving the wreck even though we’re not in danger. It just makes it difficult to enjoy something I used to love. It’s hard — I’ve found that PTSD is a real thing.
The full NTSB investigation is expected to be completed by spring 2019.
We already know the engineer was traveling nearly three times the posted speed limit of 30 mph when the train flew off the tracks and plunged onto I-5.
He told investigator he knew the curve with the slower speed limit was coming, and had seen the warning sign at four miles out, but missed the sign at two miles out. He only started applying emergency brakes at the final sign at the start of the curve, which was too late to avoid disaster.
He had also only trained on the route where he actually operated the equipment three times, and only once with the train headed southbound as it was that morning.
Nathan wants Amtrak held accountable, but says the engineer also must answer for the crash.
“I think the engineer needs to spend a couple years in jail for this,” he said. “Train-wrecking and causing a catastrophe are federal crimes, and I want to see him serve his time. I do actually think the engineer was negligent.”
But David Benninger, a lawyer representing more than 30 of the derailment victims who have filed lawsuits, says it’s about more than that — it is about getting to the root cause.
“It’s easy just to blame somebody for going too fast, but why did that occur?” Benninger asked. “How was that allowed to occur in this day and age when you’re supposed to have positive train control? It appears more and more that these are institutional issues, that the conductors and the engineers were set up to fail rather than succeed. Why? Was there a rush to get this back online? Did they cut corners on safety to do it?”
“Dec. 18 is a somber anniversary for all of us at Amtrak,” said a statement emailed by Amtrak spokeswoman Olivia Irvin. “We remain profoundly sorry for everyone who was impacted by this tragic event, including our customers, the motorists on Interstate 5, and the crew on Train 501, along with their families and the greater community.”
“We are continuing to cooperate fully with the NTSB’s ongoing investigation, and we will work with them on their findings,” the statement continued.
In the wake of the crash, Amtrak rolled out a multi-million dollar upgrade to a data management system to better identify safety trends.
Amtrak said it also unveiled a “new comprehensive process” for how to train and qualify train engineers and crews to work on new routes. Inadequate training is one of the allegations raised in the lawsuits of people injured after they boarded Amtrak’s inaugural run with paying passengers on the Point Defiance Bypass.