NTSB Releases Report on 2021 Amtrak Derailment Near Joplin
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Investigators probing a 2021 fatal Amtrak derailment in Montana disclosed Tuesday that the track had been bent along a curve near the accident site and that the problem had been getting worse as freight trains traveled over the area before the derailment that killed three people and injured dozens of others.
Details on the bent track were included in hundreds of pages of investigative documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
All three passengers who were killed and two others who were seriously injured were in or had just been in an observation car that ended up on its side during the derailment, the investigation found.
The agency has not yet determined a cause. Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed Sept. 25, 2021, in north-central Montana, while en route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with 154 people on board. The track is owned by BNSF Railway.
Survivors described horrific scenes of people maimed and killed as four cars — including an observation car with large windows — toppled and skidded down the tracks.
Killed in the accident were Margie and Don Vardahoe, a Georgia couple on a cross-country trip to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, and Zachariah Schneider, 28, a software developer from Illinois. Forty-four passengers and crew were taken to area hospitals with injuries.
The conclusion that the track was bent came from video footage, including from two freight trains that went around the accident curve within 90 minutes before the Amtrak derailment.
After each of the freight trains had passed, the bend in the track appeared to have gotten worse, investigators reported. Neither of the freight train crews saw the problem.
“The Amtrak engineer also did not see the track misalignment before traveling over that portion of track. Investigators, who watched the videos and were focused primarily on detecting the track deviation, were able to first see the misalignment only a couple seconds before the trains had traveled over it,” the report said.
Former NTSB investigator Robert J. Chipkevich, who had not reviewed the findings in the 2021 crash, said track problems can be caused by issues including the quality of maintenance and repairs, the integrity of the ballast material that underlies the rails and excessive summer heat.
“These conditions can change certainly after a heavy freight train passes over it,” Chipkevich said. “If it wasn't noticed by a crew member, then you have several tons of train crossing over that so it could change.”
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari declined comment on the track issues raised in the report. A spokesperson with BNSF Railway did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Attorneys for the estates of the Vardahoes and Schneider did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
The Vardahoes were reportedly in the vestibule — the space between the observation car and a coach car behind it — when the derailment happened and they were thrown from the train, investigators found.
Don Vardahoe, 74, ended up under the observation car while Margie Vardahoe, 72, suffered a fatal head injury when she struck equipment along the track, a report said.
The other fatality, Schneider, 28, along with three other people, were ejected from the observation car when right-side windows broke, investigators found. Schneider was dragged or rolled on the ground, a report stated.
A 51-year-old man who was sitting on the left side of the observation car was thrown out a right-side window space. He did not remember hitting any glass. He suffered serious injuries and ended up with his prosthetic legs pinned under the car, the report stated.
A 49-year-old man reported he and his wife were seated on the right side of the observation car when it tipped over. They ended up riding on top of a window as the car was dragged down the track. As the train slowed, the window fell out, dropping the couple on the ground, investigators reported. They fell into a gap between the side of the observation car and the ground as the train came to a stop, avoiding being run over by the car. The man suffered serious injuries while his wife had what the NTSB described as minor injuries.
All but two of the 11 right-side windows on the observation car fell out during the derailment, reports say.
The crash on a Saturday afternoon mobilized area first responders and residents who helped less-seriously injured passengers onto buses to take them to nearby Chester, Montana, where they were given food and other assistance.
The train was traveling just below the speed limit of 79 mph (127 kph) when its emergency brakes were activated, the NTSB has said.
Rail accidents including derailments have been trending down in the U.S. as the number of miles travelled by trains drops.
However, the rate of accidents per mile has been going up, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Railway unions contend rail transportation has become riskier in recent years following widespread job cuts. Most rail accidents involve freight trains, and fatalities involving passenger trains are rare.