At least three people were killed Saturday afternoon when an Amtrak train that runs between Seattle and Chicago derailed in north-central Montana, toppling several cars onto their sides, authorities said.
The westbound Empire Builder train derailed about 4 p.m. near Joplin, a town of about 200, Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams said in a statement. The accident scene is about 241 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Helena and about 48 kilometers from the border with Canada.
Liberty County sheriff’s dispatcher Starr Tyler told The Associated Press (AP) that three people died in the derailment. She did not have more details. Amtrak said in a statement that there were multiple injuries.
The train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew members onboard, Abrams said. The train had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, he said.
“We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident,” Abrams said.
Megan Vandervest, a passenger who was going to visit a friend in Seattle, told The New York Times that she was awakened by the derailment.
“My first thought was that we were derailing because, to be honest, I have anxiety and I had heard stories about trains derailing,” said Vandervest, who is from Minneapolis. “My second thought was that’s crazy. We wouldn’t be derailing. Like, that doesn’t happen.”
She told the Times that the car behind hers was tilted, the one behind that was tipped over, and the three cars behind that “had completely fallen off the tracks and were detached from the train.”
Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Center, where some passengers were being taken, Vandervest said it felt like “extreme turbulence on a plane.”
Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help the passengers.
Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a local 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.”
A grocery store in Chester, about 8 kilometers from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.
The passengers were taken by buses to hotels in nearby Shelby, said Ghekiere, whose husband works for the local emergency services agency and was alerted to the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a 14-member team, including investigators and specialists in railroad signals and other disciplines, to investigate the crash, spokesperson Eric Weiss said.
Weiss said the derailment occurred around 3:55 p.m. and no other trains or equipment were involved. The train was traveling on a BNSF Railway main track at the time, he said.
Photos posted to social media showed rail cars on their sides and passengers standing alongside the tracks, some carrying luggage. The images showed sunny skies, and it appeared the accident occurred along a straight section of tracks.
Amtrak said that because of the derailment, the Sunday westbound Empire Builder will terminate in Minneapolis, and the Sunday eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in Minneapolis.