Seventy-eight passengers and five crew members were aboard when the Amtrak train travelling at more than 80mph derailed about 40 miles south of Seattle on a route that had raised safety concerns. The death toll is expected to rise.
An official briefed on the investigation said preliminary signs indicated that Train 501 may have struck something before going off the track.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said several vehicles on Interstate 5 were struck by falling train carriages and multiple motorists were injured. No motorists were reported killed.
Chris Karnes was on the train, three or four carriages from the front. He said the only part of the train remaining on the tracks was the rear locomotive. Several cars were hanging over the overpass.
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The possibility that the wreck was caused by something on the tracks fed into concerns voiced by local officials about the risk of high-speed trains crossing busy streets. The mayor of a town near the derailment had warned about the danger of an accident at a public meeting two weeks ago.
Daniel Konzelman, 24, was driving parallel to the train on his way to work in Olympia. He was about 30 seconds ahead of the train on the freeway when he saw it derail.
Mr Konzelman, who was driving with a friend, said he pulled off the freeway and ran down along the tracks and over the bridge to get to the scene.
They saw three cars and a truck on the freeway that had been damaged by the derailment. There were train carriages with their roofs ripped off, or that were tipped upside down, on both sides of the track or turned sideways on the bridge.
They climbed into train carriages and found people hurt - some pinned underneath the train, others who appeared to be dead, he said.
If they were mobile and seemed stable, he helped them climb out. If they appeared seriously hurt, he tried to comfort them by talking to them.