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Amtrak train derails at Home Valley

Four cars leave tracks, no deaths result

Less than 20 minutes after leaving Bingen on April 3, something went wrong on the westbound Amtrak train known as the Empire Builder.

At around 9:30 a.m. on a rainy Sunday, the four-car train -- on its way from Chicago to Vancouver and Portland -- derailed on a curve just west of Home Valley while going 60 mph.

All four cars left the tracks and slammed into an embankment, where they rested on a sharp angle. The locomotive also derailed in the accident, but remained upright.

Crew members from the locomotive said they had no warning before the train left the tracks.

"Not a bit," said one of the locomotive's crew as he hiked along a torn up stretch of track after the wreck.

Traffic on State Route 14 near the wreck site was closed for about four hours as emergency crews staged along the highway just past the Wind River.

The passenger train had 115 people on board. Most were uninjured, although 30 passengers sought medical attention, with 14 being taken to area hospitals.

"Thirty were either seen on the site or taken to hospitals," said Amtrak spokesperson Marcie Golgoski from Washington, D.C. "Two passengers were kept in a hospital overnight for observation. Some crew members also sought medical attention, but none of them had serious injuries."

Due to the number of people known to be on board and possibly injured in the wreck, the accident was initially categorized as a "mass casualty incident." Emergency responders reported to the scene from across the region, and a regional disaster plan was activated.

According to Skamania County Sheriff David S. Brown, more than 30 law enforcement, fire, emergency medical service and other response agencies assisted from throughout the Columbia River Gorge, from both Oregon and Washington.

Passengers were evacuated from the tilting train cars and escorted down the tracks to SR 14, where school buses were waiting. The buses took the passengers to Wind River Middle School in Carson. Amtrak later bused those who were not injured to Portland's Union Station.

One traveler was taken by LifeFlight helicopter to Portland's Emanuel Hospital, but his condition was later reported as not serious.

Ten passengers were transported to Skyline Hospital in White Salmon, while others were taken to Hood River Memorial Hospital and to Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver.

Skyline Hospital Administrator Mike Madden said the hospital initiated its crisis plan.

"We were told to expect up to 100 patients," Madden said. "We had 44 of our staff come in. A lot of people who normally would be off dropped everything and came in."

Skyline ended up treating 10 patients.

"They were mostly bumps and bruises, but there were no broken bones," Madden said. "One had a strained back, one had a lacerated hand, one had a sprained knee; things people get when they get tossed around."

According to Madden, there were 25 ambulances at the accident scene, including all three of Skyline's ambulances.

Firefighters used ladders to climb onto the leaning passenger cars and help get people off the train. At least two individuals required several hours of effort to extricate them from the train.

The last passenger was strapped to a stretcher and brought off by firefighters at about 12:30 p.m., three hours after the wreck.

Madden said he talked with one unidentified patient who had boarded the train in Bingen and was headed to Portland.

"She said, `that was an interesting $9 train ride,'" Madden recalled.

Madden said he was extremely gratified with the response by Skyline's personnel.

"The people of this area can feel good about the response, and the number of very well-trained people available to respond to something like this," Madden said.

Among those standing by at Skyline was Dr. Gianna Scannell, a trained trauma surgeon recently hired by the hospital.

"At first it sounded like a real nasty one," said Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace. "I had visions of cars rumpled up and flipped over. And then when I saw it, I said, `oh man, they got lucky. If that had gone into the drink.' They got real lucky compared to what it could have been, with all the track along the water around there."

Madden agreed that the potential for a much more serious incident was narrowly averted.

"Just beyond where the engine came to a stop, there was a very narrow section of track and a straight drop into the river," Madden explained. "Another 40 feet down the road, and it all could have ended up in the river."

Keith Holloway, public affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., said the full investigation could take 12-18 months.

Holloway said he could not offer any preliminary reason for the derailment.

"We won't speculate, and we don't guess at preliminary causes," Holloway said.

However, inspectors appeared to be focusing on problems with the tracks as the most likely cause for the mishap.

David Nice, Skyline Hospital ambulance supervisor, said the hospital could have handled many more patients if necessary.

"It depends on the level of severity of the injuries, but we easily could have handled 25-30 patients, with a percentage of those being critical," Nice said. "All in all, had it really been the big one, the overall system could have handled even 100 patients. This was a massive cooperative teamwork effort, all meshed together like it was supposed to."

Nice said one snag came to light during the incident: how to get information to those looking for injured family members, who could have been taken to any one of several different medical facilities, and were not necessarily at Skyline.

"We took lots of phone calls from family members," he said. "That's one area we recognized we need to establish better for future events."

The rail line, owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, was closed until late Monday afternoon. Amtrak passengers were being bused between Portland and Spokane while BNSF crew repaired the tracks.

Although freight trains had begun moving, Amtrak's Golgoski said regular Amtrak train service through the Columbia River Gorge had not yet resumed as of Monday night.

"We do not believe all the track repair, testing, and inspection are finished," Golgoski explained.


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