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Amtrak train derails in Washington state, rail cars fall onto interstate; multiple deaths reported

In a photo provided by Washington State Patrol, an Amtrak train derailed onto Interstate 5 near Olympia, Wash., on Dec. 18, 2017. The sheriff in Pierce County, Wash., said on social media that several cars were struck by the train. Multiple motorists were injured. (Washington State Patrol via The New York Times)1 / 2
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A number of people were killed and scores more injured south of Seattle when an early morning Amtrak train traveling on a new route on its first day derailed while crossing a bridge above a busy interstate highway, authorities said.

In a dramatic 911 call, an unidentified train operator said "We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there, right north in Nisqually and we went on the ground."

This dispatcher asked, "Is everybody ok?" The crew member replied, "I'm still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway. As soon as I know exactly where all my train is, I'll let you know."

From the air, the full scope of the wreck came into focus: one rail car ended up tucked under the bridge, another car dangled from the bridge with its lower end caving in the roof of the car beneath the bridge. One of two engines and at least two other cars were on the highway or beside the rail bed, and at least two derailed cars remained beside the tracks.

Officials said they believed that no one on busy Interstate 5 perished, but at least one passenger car appeared severely damaged and a tractor-trailer pulling an orange Hapag-Lloyd container that was just emerging from under the bridge had the front of its cab crushed.

"At it certain point it seemed like we were reaching sort of a bend in the tracks and all of a sudden we were slammed into the seats in front of us," he said. "And then the car careened down and embankment and came to a stop. After that happened we could hear and feel the cars crumpling and breaking apart."

Karnes, who was in a car toward the front of the train, said he and other passengers had to kick out a window to get out. Passengers had visible injuries - "cuts, people bleeding," he said. "I did see one person who was laying on the ground and not moving."

He said military police, firefighters and medics flooded the scene. In his railcar, he said the passenger load was "relatively light. But authorities said some of the cars derailed in the woods and rescuers were using chainsaws to get to passengers.

The cause of the derailment was unclear, but the train was entering a curve as it made its way south from Seattle to Portland. Though the train had been tested on the track, which was owned by Seattle's Sound Transit system, Monday's run was the first time it made the trip with a full load of 78 passengers.

The engine of the train apparently stayed on the tracks, but at least two cars crashed to the highway below, and another car was left dangling from the bridge with the lower end thrust into the roof of another train car.

Those who died were believed to be on the train and not on the highway. Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, said the highway will be closed for a long period, calling it a "pretty horrific" crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate the cause of the derailment, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said, and the Federal Railroad Administration will send investigators to join them.

A state police spokeswoman told media at the scene that people should stay away from the area. The southbound lanes of I-5 will be closed for the rest of the day and closures could extend to a few days. The investigation on the highway could last a few days, she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee said on Twitter: "Today's tragic incident in Pierce County is a serious and ongoing emergency. Trudi and I are holding in our hearts everyone on board, and are praying for the many injured."

"They are our top priority, and I know first responders are doing everything to ensure everyone has the care they need," Inslee said. "Everyone should avoid traveling I-5, and WSDOT is working to open alternative routes through the area during the emergency response. This morning I spoke with my cabinet officials, and we are in touch with Amtrak who we know are working to provide as much information as possible."

"This catastrophic derailment is horrific," said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan

President Donald Trump said the White House was monitoring the situation.

"My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the train accident in DuPont, Washington," the president tweeted. "Thank you to all of our wonderful First Responders who are on the scene. We are currently monitoring here at the White House."

The train was a new line for Amtrak on its Cascades line, running from Seattle to Portland. The new line was meant to cut the travel time between those cities.

More than 60,000 vehicles a day use that area of southbound I-5, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Troyer told Q13 Fox News that there are fatalities and that the property damage is "catastrophic." He said first responders are "in the woods, using chainsaws" trying to get to people. He couldn't confirm the number of injured or dead.

"A lot of things need to be done before anyone can confirm any numbers," he said.

The Amtrak Cascades train has daily service between Seattle and Portland, departing from Seattle at 6 a.m. local time. Amtrak's train status says "status currently unavailable due to a service disruption. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL for more information."

Story by Dana Hedgpeth and Luz Lazo.

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