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Amtrak derailment kills at least 3 people in remote part of Montana

CNN logo CNN 9/27/2021 By Deanna Hackney, Eric Levenson and Alta Spells, CNN
In this photo provided by Kimberly Fossen, an ambulance is parked at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Saturday in Montana. © Kimberly Fossen/AP In this photo provided by Kimberly Fossen, an ambulance is parked at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Saturday in Montana.

An Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest derailed in a remote part of Montana on Saturday afternoon, killing three people and hospitalizing five others, authorities said.

Eight cars from Amtrak's Empire Builder train 7/27 headed westbound to Seattle/Portland derailed at about 4 p.m. near Joplin, a town about 30 miles south of the Canadian border with a population of about 150 people, Amtrak said.

The train consisted of two locomotives and 10 cars and there were about 141 passengers and 16 crew members on board, Amtrak said in an additional statement Sunday, clarifying previous figures provided.

"We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident. There are also reported injuries among the passengers and crew members travelling on the train. Amtrak is working with the local authorities to transport those who were injured to medical care, and to safely evacuate everyone else at the scene," said the statement.

The injured were treated at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls, while others who were injured have been treated and released from a variety of local hospitals, said Sarah Robbin, the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Liberty County.

Megan Vandervest, a passenger on a sleeper car on the train, had been taking a nap when the derailment jolted her awake.

"I would describe the experience as kind of extreme turbulence on an airplane but louder, and there was kind of a lot of smoke smell. The first thought I really had when I woke up was, 'Oh my God we're derailing,'" she told CNN.

"It was probably 10 or 15 seconds of rocking back and forth and tons of noise, and then we came to a stop. Really we didn't know what was going on for a couple minutes."

Vandervest said she was evacuated within 10 minutes of the incident and only then understood the extent of the damage.

"We kind of thought maybe the car behind us had slightly come off or something like that, but it ended up being much, much worse and a lot more jarring to see when we got off the train," she said. "The car behind ours was slightly off and then the one behind that was kind of in between two sets of railroad tracks, and the one behind that one had like completely tipped over and fallen over and that was kind of the most shocking part."

Injured passengers were taken by ambulance to the towns of Havre, Shelby, Great Falls and Fort Benton, and those who were in critical condition were flown for treatment, said Amanda Frickel, the disaster and emergency services coordinator for Hill County.

"The passengers that were able to be transported from the derailment to the shelters were accounted for, fed, (and) given meds if theirs were lost or missing," Frickel said in a text message to CNN. "Then they were safely bussed to Shelby MT for the evening."

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Monday it is reviewing on-board video as well as data from the train's "black box."

NTSB Vice Chair Bruce Landsberg said a team of 14 investigators and experts on the ground in Joplin will review train 7/27's front-facing video as well as video from the same vantage point on a freight train that passed through the area almost an hour and a half before the derailment.

"We don't know at that this point whether it was a track issue or an issue with the train, so all of these things are open," Landsberg said. "There's a lot of ground to cover and there is significant damage, so our experts are going to be really looking at that."

Landsberg says train data shows it traveling between 75 and 78 miles per hour before it departed a right-curving section of track where the speed limit was 79 miles per hour.

Investigators will interview the train's crew as well as BNSF Railway track inspectors who conducted an inspection where the eight of the train's 10 cars left the tracks.

The Empire Builder travels between Chicago-St.Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle, according to Amtrak's website, and offers passengers a chance to "experience the rugged splendor of the American West."

"Traveling between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest along major portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail, the mighty Empire Builder takes you on an exciting adventure through majestic wilderness, following in the footsteps of early pioneers," the website adds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Megan Vandervest.

An Amtrak car lies on its side after derailing on Saturday in Montana. © Jacob Cordeiro An Amtrak car lies on its side after derailing on Saturday in Montana. Amtrak's Empire Builder, a 10-car passenger train, derailed near Joplin, Montana on Saturday. © Courtesy Megan Vandervest Amtrak's Empire Builder, a 10-car passenger train, derailed near Joplin, Montana on Saturday.
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