911 calls capture chaos, tragedy after Amtrak train derailment
Calls from the train’s riders, freeway motorists and witnesses flooded the dispatch center as desperate voices explained a widespread disaster
By Lewis Kamb
The Seattle Times
The woman’s voice carried the urgency of sudden tragedy during the 2 minute, 10 second call placed shortly after 7:30 a.m. Monday.
“An Amtrak train fell off the I-5 overpass,” she implored to the dispatcher fielding her call. “The train is hanging off the overpass, it’s landed on vehicles and there’s people like … there’s, there’s, there’s bodies laying everywhere.”
“How many patients are there do you think,” the dispatcher asked her.
“How many patients are there,” the woman called out.
Garbled voices shouted somewhere in the distance.
“I see one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 — probably a dozen,” she said. “And there’s cars underneath the train.”
Audio recordings of the emergency calls placed after Amtrak Cascades Train 501 jumped the tracks north of Olympia on Monday, crashing into a wooded embankment and onto Interstate 5 during the morning rush hour, captured the chaos and confusion of an unfolding catastrophe that injured dozens of people and claimed three men’s lives.
Calls from the train’s riders, freeway motorists and witnesses to the deadly wreck flooded the South Sound 911 dispatch center as desperate voices awash with grim details explained a widespread disaster as it came into clearer focus.
“Tons of people are hurt!” another woman cried into the phone from one of the derailed passenger cars.
“Are you with anybody that’s hurt,” a dispatcher asked.
“We’re all hurt,” she wailed.
As the woman cried details to dispatchers, her voice as a frightened victim intermittently transformed to that of instructive mother, as she quietly assured a son with a neck injury.
“We’re going to get help, I promise,” she told her boy.
In all, about 80 people were hurt when the Portland-bound train, barreling into a curve at 80 mph — nearly triple the posted 30-mph speed limit — careened off the rails during the inaugural run on the Point Defiance bypass, the culmination of a $181 million project to refurbish the Sound Transit-owned inland spur for speedier state-contracted passenger-rail service.
The wreck also killed longtime rail advocates Zack Willhoite, 35, and Jim Hamre, 61, and 40-year-old Auburn resident Benjamin Gran.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. State transportation officials said Thursday they won’t restart passenger service along the route where the train derailed until advanced safety systems are in place.
Footage from the train’s inward- and outward-facing cameras shows the train’s engineer was not using a cellphone before the crash, according to a preliminary NTSB report. About 6 seconds before the derailment, the engineer commented on “an over speed condition,” according to the report.
Through the series of calls from the crash scene, 911 dispatchers asked questions while they grappled to pinpoint the accident’s location amid crying and confusion in their headsets.
(Audio clips in this story are excerpts from longer recordings.)
A woman sobbed as a dispatcher patched her call to another, explaining: “Her vehicle is on I-5, air bags deployed. She was hit by a mudslide.”
“I’m the only car besides a semi that made it through the train derailment,” the woman blurted. “I was right at the front when it came.”
“And the train — did it fall down onto I-5?” the dispatcher wondered.
“I can’t tell, looks like it. I just saw a huge — I thought it was a mudslide. A huge cloud of mud and dirt came and hit my car and spun me around … God, I hope everyone is OK.”
As the calls mounted, initially so did confusion in figuring out which agency was in charge of an emergency spilling across multiple jurisdictions. Local-response agencies wondered if they should deploy to the scene.
“Hi Firecom, Batallion 20 here. Hey, I’m seeing that train derailment in DuPont. Is that pretty significant?” a West Pierce emergency dispatcher inquired.
“Yes, super, super significant,” a dispatcher responded. “They’ve got at least 12 bodies on the tracks and several vehicles under the train.”
“Do you need resources from West Pierce … Who’s in command down there?”
“Uh, that’s what we’re trying to figure out,” another dispatcher answered.
Dispatchers seemed to gain control in coordinating a response in part by deploying all resources.
“I just need to find out what resources you’ve got and what do you need from us,” a local dispatcher asked another at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Oh we’ve got — just send everything,” the military dispatcher responded. “We’ve got a passenger train, there could be more than 100 hurt and injured. Just send everything you got. We’ve got every Fort Lewis resource en route.”