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Train brake automatically activated in fatal wreck

  • A damaged Amtrak train car is lowered from an overpass at the scene of Monday's deadly train crash onto Interstate 5 Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the Amtrak train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

  • A damaged train car sits on a flatbed trailer at left as work continues to remove other cars at the scene of an Amtrak train crash onto Interstate 5 a day earlier Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday, killing some people and injuring dozens. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

  • An Amtrak train car that careened off an overpass south of Seattle is hauled away on Interstate 5 Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in Dupont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday, killing some people and injuring dozens. (AP Photo/Haven Daley) Haven Daley

  • Two damaged train cars are removed atop flatbed trailers from the scene of an Amtrak train crash onto Interstate 5 a day earlier as northbound traffic passes nearby Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday, killing some people and injuring dozens. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

  • First responders work at the scene of an Amtrak train that derailed in DuPont, south of Seattle on Monday. ap photo

  • The rear car of a crashed Amtrak train remains standing where the southbound tracks make a curve left Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday south of Seattle .(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

  • Seats are jammed together with other debris on an upside-down Amtrak train car taken from the scene of Monday's deadly crash onto Interstate 5 Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. The Amtrak train that plunged off an overpass south of Seattle was hurtling 50 mph over the speed limit when it jumped the track, federal investigators said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson

  • Two damaged train cars sit on flatbed trailers after being taken from the scene of an Amtrak train crash onto Interstate 5 a day earlier Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say they don't yet know why the Amtrak train was traveling 50 mph over the speed limit when it derailed Monday south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson



Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

DUPONT, Wash. — Investigators are looking into whether the Amtrak engineer whose speeding train plunged off an overpass, killing at least three people, was distracted by the presence of an employee-in-training next to him in the locomotive, a federal official said Tuesday.

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators want to know whether the engineer lost “situational awareness” because of the second person in the cab.

Preliminary information indicated that the emergency brake on the Amtrak train that derailed in Washington state went off automatically and was not manually activated by the engineer, National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

The train was hurtling at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone Monday morning when it ran off the rails along a curve south of Seattle, sending some of its cars plummeting onto an interstate highway below, Dinh-Zarr said, citing data from the locomotive’s event recorder.

Skid marks — so-called “witness marks” — from the train’s wheels show where it left the track, she added.

Dinh-Zarr said it is not yet known what caused the train to derail and that it was too early in the investigation to conclude why it was going so fast.

Investigators will talk to the engineer and other crew members and review the event data record from the lead locomotive as well as an identical device from the rear engine, which has already been studied. Investigators are also trying to get images from two on-board cameras that were damaged in the crash, she said.

There were two people in the cab of the train at the time of the crash, the engineer and an in-training conductor who familiarizing himself with the route, Dinh-Zarr said. A second conductor was in the passenger cabin at the time of the crash, which is also part of the job responsibility, she said.

In previous wrecks, investigators looked at whether the engineer was distracted or incapacitated. It is standard procedure in a crash investigation to test the engineer for alcohol or drugs and check to determine whether he or she was using a cellphone, something that is prohibited while the train is running.

The engineer, whose name was not released, was bleeding from the head after the crash and his eyes were swollen shut, according to radio transmissions from a crew member. The transmissions mentioned a second person in the front of the train who was also hurt.

The 7:34 a.m. accident left mangled train cars up on top of each other, with one hanging precariously over the freeway. The screech and clang of metal were followed by silence, then screams, as the injured cried out to rescuers and motorists pulled over and rushed to help.

In addition to those killed, more than 70 people were injured, 10 of them seriously.

Two of the dead were identified as train buffs and members of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington and were excited to be on board for the inaugural run: Jim Hamre, a retired civil engineer with the state Transportation Department, and Zack Willhoite, a customer service employee at a local transit agency.

“It’s pretty devastating. We’re having a tough time,” said All Aboard Washington executive director Lloyd Flem.