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

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/26/2021 John Bacon, USA TODAY
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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. 

People work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Sept. 25 in north-central Montana. © Kimberly Fossen, AP People work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Sept. 25 in north-central Montana.

"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.

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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.

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

"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 tweeted. "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."

Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said about 60 passengers were brought to a school where they were able to clean up and get food and water. Many passengers were bused to hotels in Shelby, 50 miles west of Joplin.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was monitoring the investigation.

"Please join me in praying for all involved and the first responders on the ground," Gianforte tweeted.

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: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 3 dead, 7 hospitalized: What caused fatal Amtrak derailment in Montana? Federal investigation underway

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