CHESTER, Mont. (NMB) – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has begun their investigation into the derailment of a westbound Amtrak Empire Builder on Saturday just west of Joplin that killed three people and has left five still hospitalized.
The derailment occurred on a gradual right-hand curve prior to reaching the switch on the track, according to NTSB Vice-Chair Bruce Landsberg, who says that some people may have been ejected from the train.
“We do not have a final answer on that. Our experts are now analyzing the cars, looking at what damage occurred there, and obviously, the medical personnel will be looking at the injuries of the people, both survivors and fatalities to do some analysis there. So we won’t know that for probably several months at the earliest.”
Although the investigation will take months, Landsberg says that the track could reopen in under a week.
“As soon as the track is able to be opened, as soon as we’ve documented everything that we need from the track, we’ll certainly turn it over to BNSF. (Investigator in Charge Tim Southworth) advises me that he’s given permission to move some of the locomotives and some of the rail cars. So we are making good progress.”
14 employees of the NTSB are expected to be at the scene for approximately one week, with the overall role of figuring out what happened, why it happened, and to make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.
“(They have) various specialties. Operations, human factors, we have track experts, we have mechanical experts, signal experts, crash worthiness, survival factors, and a very important part is our family assistance group that is here to help the families of the victims for as long as they are going to need it. Both here on site and in the coming months,” said Landsberg.
A preliminary report on the crash is expected within 30 days. After that, factual and final reports will be provided once a probable cause has been found.
Landsberg says the Amtrak train was traveling between 75-78 miles an hour at the time of the crash, just under the 79 mile per hour speed limit for passenger trains. The train had a forward-facing camera and was also equipped with a “black box,” which provides data from the time of the crash such as speed, direction, and throttle and brake status.
Footage from a forward-facing camera from a BNSF freight train that traveled through the area around 80 minutes before the crash will also be inspected.
“We have experts that are studying the camera footage frame-by-frame to make sure that we see exactly what the engineers saw, or maybe didn’t see, when we got to that point,” Landsberg said.
Interviews will be conducted with the Amtrak train crew, the BNSF train crews and track inspection teams, as well as other relevant parties.
When it comes to what caused the crash, Landsberg says nothing is being ruled out yet.
“We don’t know at this point exactly what happened. Whether it was a track issue, whether it was a mechanical issue with a train. All of these things are open. The preliminary report, which will be within 30 days, you’ll probably get to a fairly good idea of the general things of what. We won’t get to the why, because of the analysis, until we’re a bit farther down stream.”
The crash scene itself is quite large, with some cars separated by 200-300 yards, according to Southworth.
The investigation is being led by the NTSB, but other parties involved include Amtrak, BNSF, the Federal Railway Administration, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, SMART, Maintenance and Way, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The last inspection of the track occurred on September 23rd by BNSF, and Landberg says those inspections had been conducted on a twice-per-week basis on this section of track.
The incident killed three people and injured dozens. As of Monday afternoon, five people remained hospitalized in Great Falls in stable condition.