JOPLIN, Mont. Federal officials dispatched a team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board to the site of an Amtrak derailment in north central Montana that killed three people and hospitalized seven Sunday, officials said.
The westbound Empire Builder was en route to Seattle from Chicago, carrying two locomotives and 10 cars, when it left the tracks near Joplin, a city of about 200 residents, around 4 p.m. Saturday.
The train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crew members and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.
A 14-person team, including investigators and railway signal specialists, would investigate the cause of the derailment on a main track of BNSF Railway that did not involve other trains or equipment. said NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.
The accident site is about 240 miles northeast of Helena and about 30 miles from the Canadian border.
Most of the people on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but five more seriously injured remained at Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, Montana, said Sarah Robbin, Liberty County emergency services coordinator. Two layers in the ICU, another spokeswoman said.
Two more people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Montana, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until family members were notified.
Robbin said local residents rushed to help when the derailment occurred.
“We’re lucky enough to live where we live, where neighbors help neighbors,” she said.
Amtrak said it sent emergency services and other officials to the site to assist passengers, employees and local officials.
CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement that the quasi-public company is working with federal and local investigators and declined to comment on the incident.
Due to the derailment, Chicago’s westbound Empire Builder will terminate in Minneapolis on Sunday and the eastbound train will depart Minneapolis.
Passenger Megan Vandervest 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’m worried and I had heard stories about trains derailing,” said Vandervest of Minneapolis. “My second thought was that that’s crazy. We wouldn’t derail. That doesn’t happen, for example.”
She told the Times that the car overturned behind hers, the one overturned behind it, and that the three cars behind it had “completely fallen off the rails and come off the train.”
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Center, where some passengers were taken, Vandervest said it felt like “extreme turbulence in an airplane.”
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help.
Chester councilor Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers being taken to a school.
“I went to the school and helped with water, food, wipe dirt from faces,” she said. “They seemed tired, shocked but happy to be where they were. Some looked more untidy than others, depending on where they were on the train.”
A supermarket 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 and was warned of the crash.
Photos on social media showed train cars on their sides and passengers standing next to the tracks, some with luggage. The images showed sunny skies and it appeared that the accident happened along a straight stretch of track.
Allan Zarembski, director of the Railway Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware, said he didn’t want to speculate, but suspected the derailment was the result of a problem with the track or equipment, or a combination of both.
Railroads have “virtually eliminated” major derailments caused by human error after the implementation of positive train control across the country, Zarembski said.
“I’d be surprised if this was a human factor derailment,” Zarembski said.
NTSB findings could take months, he added.
Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw the railroad accident investigation at the NTSB for many years, said the agency is not ruling out human error or other possible causes for the time being.
“There are still issues with human performance that are being investigated by NTSB to make sure people doing the job are qualified, equipped and doing it right,” Chipkevich said.
Chipkevich said track conditions have traditionally been a major cause of train accidents. He noted that most of the track Amtrak uses is owned by freight railroads, and it depends on those companies for safety maintenance.