A team of National Transportation Safety Board investigators was at the site of an Amtrak derailment in north-central Montana that killed three people and hospitalized seven, officials said.
The Empire Builder on the west side was on its way from Chicago to Seattle when it veered off the tracks near Joplin, a city of about 200, around 4 p.m. Saturday.
Trevor Fossen was on the scene first. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road near the tracks on Saturday when he saw a “wall of dust” about 300 feet high.
“I started looking at it, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train overturn and derail,” said Fossen, who called 911 and tried to get people out. He called his brother to bring a ladder for those who could not get down after exiting the windows of the cars resting on their side.
Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew members and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed.
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said a 14-member team, including investigators and rail signals experts, would investigate the cause of the derailment on the main track of the BNSF railway, which did not involve any other train or equipment.
Law enforcement said officers from the NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF had arrived at the crash site west of Joplin, where the track cut through vast, golden-brown wheat fields that had recently been cut. Several large cranes were brought to the tracks that run parallel to US Highway 2, along with truckloads of gravel and new railroad ties.
Many rail cars could still be seen on their banks.
The crash site is about 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of Helena and about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Canadian border.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn offered condolences to those who lost their loved ones and said the company was working with the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing a “sense of urgency” to determine Is.
“The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak is committed to taking appropriate action to prevent a similar accident in the future,” Flynn said in the statement.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianfort said the BNSF was preparing replacement tracks when the NTSB gives the go-head. “BNSF has assured me that they can line up and run in short order,” he said.
Rail safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said crash scene photos show the derailment occurred at or near a switch, where the railway went from single track to double track.
Clark stated that the two locomotives and the two cars in front of the train split and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was not clear whether some of the previous cars went to another track.
“Did the switch play some role? Maybe the front of the train hit the switch and it started fishing and that train back flipped,” Clarke said.
Another possibility was a malfunction in the rail, Clark said, noting that routine testing doesn’t always catch such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor as trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speed and collisions.
BNSF Railway spokesman Matt Jones told a news conference that the track where the accident took place was last inspected on Thursday.
Because of the train derailment, the Empire Builder westbound from Chicago on Sunday will end in St. Paul, Minnesota and the eastbound train will start in Minnesota.
Liberty County Emergency Services Coordinator Sarah Robin said most people on the train were treated and quarantined for their injuries, but five who were more seriously injured were at Benefit Health System Hospital in Great Falls, Montana. Remained as it is. A hospital spokesman said two were in the intensive care unit.
Spokesperson Melody Sharpton said another two people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Montana.
Robin said emergency workers had struggled without success to cut open cars with special equipment, “so they had to manually carry many passengers who couldn’t walk.”
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until relatives were notified.
Robin said when the accident happened, nearby residents rushed to offer help.
“We are very fortunate to be where we live, where neighbors help neighbors,” she said.
“The locals are so wonderful and friendly,” passenger Jacob Cordeiro said on Twitter. “They provided us with food, drinks and amazing hospitality. Nothing like this happens when the best comes along after a tragedy. “
Cordeiro, who hails from Rhode Island, had just graduated from college and was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate.
“I was in one of the cars ahead and we collided badly, were thrown from one side of the train to the other,” he told MSNBC. He said the car derailed but did not overturn.
“I’m a huge guy and it took me out of my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into another wall,” Cordeiro said.
Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekire said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school. “
A grocery store in Chester, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
Alan Zerembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he did not want to speculate, but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track, equipment, or both.
Zerembski said railways have been “virtually eliminated” by human error following the implementation of positive train controls across the country. He said the NTSB’s findings could take months.