Federal investigators begin probe of fatal Montana Amtrak crash

‘We are not ruling anything out at this point’

By: - September 27, 2021 5:24 pm

The Empire Builder of Amtrak in Shelby, Montana. (Photo courtesy of Prasenberg via Wikimedia Commons).

Federal investigators studying a violent Amtrak derailment that killed three and injured dozens on Saturday near the small Hi-Line towns of Chester and Joplin have their work cut out for them.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal oversight body that probes air and surface transportation crashes, took over the scene from local emergency managers on Monday, and 14 NTSB investigators will spend around a week on site combing for information about the crash, officials said Monday. Only once this assessment is complete will the section of BNSF-owned track at the site of the derailment resume operation, a priority for a region connected by rail along the Hi-Line.

At this stage, only scant information is available: Investigators know from train’s black box and camera footage that the 10-car, 2-locomotive Empire Builder was traveling between 75 and 78 miles per hour, and derailed around 3:55 p.m. on a “gradual righthand curve prior to reaching the switch,” said NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg at a press conference in Joplin on Monday. The speed limit for passenger trains where the derailment occurred is 79 miles per hour.

“We are not ruling anything out at this point,” Landsberg said. “This is our first full day on the ground.”

The scene of the crash was a dramatic one, officials said, with some cars strewn 200-300 yards away. And it left them with a number of questions: could there have been a mechanical error in the train, or just an issue with the track? Were some individuals ejected from the train — a scenario in previous derailments, Landsberg said — or simply ejected from their seats within the train or none of the above? Were there “prior incidents with the switch?”

Investigators will also interview train crews and track inspectors — BNSF last inspected this section of rail on Sept. 23, and generally conduct an inspection every two weeks, according to the NTSB. And they’ll try to understand what happened to the Empire Builder that didn’t happen to a BNSF freight train that traveled the same section about 80 minutes prior, officials said.

The scope of these questions likely goes beyond this week, he said. The NTSB should release a preliminary report in about a month’s time that should show generally what happened, but still more specific information about the cause could take months to come out.

Gov. Greg Gianforte visited Chester on Sunday, where he highlighted the work of first responders and said that save for five in the hospital, all passengers had made it out of the state. Those five are still hospitalized in Great Falls as of Monday.

The train itself, however, was cleared from the tracks by Monday afternoon, according to Bradley Warren, a reporter with KHQ in Spokane.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.