An Amtrak passenger train derailed on a bridge over a major highway during its inaugural run along a faster route through Washington state on Monday, sending parts of the train crashing down onto the highway and killing at least six passengers.
Nearly 100 people were injured in the incident.
A spokesman for the local sheriff’s office, Ed Troyer, told reporters at the scene there were “multiple” deaths but he did not have a specific number to report.
He also said no motorists were killed, though some were injured when parts of the train struck several vehicles travelling along the Interstate 5 highway.
The incident happened about 24km east of Olympia. Part of the train fell onto the interstate in DuPont at about 7.30am local time and shut down its southbound lanes.
Amtrak confirmed its train was involved and said there were about 78 passengers and five crew aboard the train.
Seventy-seven people were transported to hospitals in Pierce and Thurston counties following the incident, according to the Tacoma-based CHI Franciscan Health healthcare network. Four of them were considered “level red” patients with the most severe injuries.
Another 20 patients were treated at the Madigan Army Medical Centre in Tacoma, nine of whom were in a “serious but stable” condition, the centre said.
Thirteen of the train’s 14 cars jumped the tracks, and five vehicles plus two semi-trailer trucks were involved in the incident, Washington state patrol spokeswoman Brooke Bova said.
A photograph posted by Ms Bova showed an upside-down train car partially crushed on the highway, with a second car dangling off the overpass.
An official briefed on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the incident told the Associated Press that preliminary signs indicated the train may have struck something on the track before being derailed.
Amtrak passenger Chris Karnes told local news outlet KIRO 7 that passengers were forced to kick out train windows in order to escape, because emergency doors were not functioning properly following the derailment.
“We had just passed the city of DuPont and it seemed like we were going around a curve,” Karnes said.
“All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill.
“The next thing we know, we’re being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there’s water gushing out of the train. People were screaming,” he added.
A member of the train’s crew told an emergency dispatcher that the train came around a corner before the bridge and then “we went on the ground”, according to an audio recording posted by Broadcastify.com.
After the dispatcher asked whether everyone was OK, the crew member replied: “I am still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.”
The dispatcher also asked for the driver’s location, and he responded: “As soon as I know exactly where all of my train is, I’ll let you know.”
The derailment occurred on the first day that Amtrak trains began using a new route between the cities of Tacoma and Olympia, part of a project to reduce travel time, according to an October news release from the state’s transportation department.
The new route takes trains along Interstate 5, eliminating a major chokepoint for passenger trains in Tacoma and allowing trains to reach speeds of 127km/h, the department had said.
Monday’s train, which was scheduled to depart Seattle at 6am local time en route to Portland, Oregon, was the first to run along the new route.
US president Donald Trump offered “thoughts and prayers” for those involved in the derailment. He thanked emergency services for their work at the scene.
He also tweeted that the crash “shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly”.
Washington governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to “loss of life, injuries and damage to infrastructure”.
He also tweeted: “Thank you to the first-responders on the scene. We’re praying for everyone on board the train, and ask everyone to hold them in your thoughts.”
The mayor of one of the towns through which the rerouted trains travel warned earlier this month that the high-speed trains were dangerously close to cars and pedestrians.
“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,” Lakewood mayor Don Anderson told transportation officials in early December, according to Seattle’s KOMO News.
– Reuters and PA