3 dead, 7 hospitalized: What caused fatal Amtrak derailment in Montana? Federal investigation probe accident

Amtrak joined federal safety officials Sunday to investigate a Montana train derailment that left at least three people dead, seven people hospitalized and rural communities scrambling to provide food and shelter to the stunned survivors.

The westbound Empire Builder train with 141 passengers and 17 crew members derailed Saturday afternoon near Joplin, a town of less than 200 people a few miles from the Canadian border in Liberty County. The tragedy occurred as Amtrak was closing out its nationwide, annual Rail Safety Week.

"The NTSB is launching a go-team to investigate Saturday’s derailment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder train," the National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter, adding that the team would be based in Great Falls, Montana.

The 14-member team includes investigators and specialists in railroad signals, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said. He said the derailment involved no other trains or equipment. The train included 10 railroad cars and two locomotives, he said.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn expressed condolences to the victims and said the company is working with the NTSB, Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing their “sense of urgency” to determine what happened.

“However, until the investigation is complete, we will not comment further on the accident itself,” Flynn said in the statement. “The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak commits to taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar accident in the future.”

Aerial views of the Seattle-bound train from Chicago showed at least seven derailed cars, three of them lying on their sides.

People work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Sept. 25 in north-central Montana.
People work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Sept. 25 in north-central Montana.

"We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident," Amtrak said in a statement. "We have a team on the ground to fully support the NTSB as they investigate the cause of the derailment."

Megan Vandervest, a passenger on the train, tweeted in the moments after the wreck that she was not injured.

"Everyone in our party is okay. Unsure (of) the status of everyone on the train," she said on Twitter. "We’re currently waiting to be bussed away from the scene."

She thanked everyone who reached out with kind words, saying, "We feel very lucky to be alive."

Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help.

Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school.

“I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,” she said. “They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.”

Jesse Anderson, who owns the motel and adjoining convenience store, talked to a couple of passengers on the doomed train, passengers who are now leery of ever traveling by rail again.

"One couple said they were experiencing a very rough ride," Anderson said, adding that the Michigan couple travels Amtrak a couple of times a year to see their son in Seattle, the train's final destination.

"They were noticing that it wasn't a very smooth ride."

To mark Rail Safety Week, which ran from Sept. 20 until Sunday, Amtrak had announced that nearly 500 police and sheriff’s departments across 43 states and the District of Columbia were joining its own Police Department and an organization called Operation Lifesaver to conduct “Operation Clear Track.”

The fifth annual event aimed at enforcing state grade crossing and trespassing laws while raising awareness on the importance of making "safe choices near railroad tracks and crossings." Operation Clear Track was created to help reduce the approximately 2,000 serious injuries and deaths that occur each year on the nation’s railroad tracks, Amtrak said.

Contributing: Lee Vernoy, Great Falls Tribune; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amtrak derailment in Montana: Investigators probe fatal accident