An Amtrak train traveling for the first time on a new high-speed route derailed in Washington state on Monday, killing several people and sending numerous cars flying off an overpass on to a busy highway.
A US official told the Associated Press earlier in the day that at least six people died and that the number of fatalities could rise, though state officials only confirmed three deaths in an afternoon briefing.
The train was traveling south on a new high-speed rail route that opened on Monday when it derailed around 7.30am . After the derailment, one of the carriages was left hanging off an overpass, resting on an overturned train car below, and 13 out of 14 cars left the track, officials said.
The derailment – which hit at least five vehicles below, but did not kill any motorists – occurred near Tacoma, roughly 40 miles (64km) south of Seattle.
There were 77 passengers and seven crew members on board, Amtrak said. More than 100 people were sent to local hospitals, with more than a dozen suffering critical or serious injuries and some needing surgery, authorities said. Officials did not share any information about the victims’ identities.
A few hours after the crash, Donald Trump cited the crash as a reason to support his infrastructure plan, tweeting: “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
Ten minutes later, he tweeted: “Thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved”.
Patricia Freeman, who was on the train when it crashed, said it appeared that her car had hit a tree, which stopped it from tumbling down.
“It felt like it was in slow motion,” she told the Guardian after she arrived at a center in DuPont that officials set up for survivors to reunite with loved ones. “I was trying to grab the bottoms of the table. I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine.”
Someone broke a window in the car to rescue her and other passengers, she recalled, adding: “Everything was rubble. I’m amazed I’m not rubble.”
Freeman, who cut her lip during the crash, had been traveling back home to Portland, Oregon, after visiting family in Washington.
Aleksander Kristiansen, a 24-year-old passenger from Copenhagen, said he was in the bathroom when the crash occurred, and that he was thrown to the ground. When he stood up, the train was shaking, he said.
“I didn’t believe it happened when it happened,” he said.
Kristiansen, who was in Seattle for an exchange program, said his train car stopped on a steep embankment, and that he exited out of the back of the car and helped others out. No one in his car was seriously injured.
Emma Schafer, who was traveling from Seattle to Portland on winter break, said she was napping on the train when the crash happened and that she was able to exit her car by walking onto another car that had fallen onto the highway.
“Have you ever been on a 3D simulator where it shakes you around a pod? It was like that,” she said, describing the aftermath as “mass confusion at a 45-degree angle”.
“It felt like the end of the world, like we’d stepped out of a nuclear bunker amid the wreckage,” she continued, adding that she was still in shock. “It’s hitting me in waves. I’m suppressing some of it. Tonight is probably going to be rough.”
First responders spent hours searching the train cars, some of which were not safe to enter as they continued to dangle off the overpass.
— Pierce Co Sheriff (@PierceSheriff) December 18, 2017
Amtrak said service south of Seattle was temporarily suspended but service north of Seattle would continue to operate.
The cause of the derailment was not immediately clear, and the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it was sending a team to investigate. An Amtrak official said authorities would consider the speed of the train and whether there were any possible obstructions on the track.
The new route, which was constructed to speed up local service, launched Monday “after weeks of inspection and testing”, officials said. The Amtrak Cascades is jointly owned by the states of Washington and Oregon, and Sound Transit, the Seattle transit agency, owns the tracks.
Local politicians had previously expressed concern about plans to introduce the high-speed rail to the region.
“Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” Don Anderson, mayor of Lakewood, said earlier this month.
Ted Danek, city administrator for DuPont, said officials had done extensive trainings to prepare for a train disaster given the recent increase in trains traveling through the area.
An Amtrak train derailed near Tacoma in July, causing injuries. Officials later blamed the crash on “human error”, saying an engineer had approached a drawbridge going above the 40mph speed limit.
The Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, declared a state of emergency and visited the scene on Monday. He emphasized that the cause of the crash remained unknown.
“There are four things we need to do: express compassion for these families, respect first responders, stay off I-5, and suspend judgement. No one knows what happened in this incident.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting