CHESTER — Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Monday arrived at the site of Saturday’s derailment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train along Montana's Hi-Line. It happened about three miles west of the town of Joplin.
The train consisted of two locomotives and 10 cars, with seven of the cars derailing. Officials estimate the crash site to be around 500 yards in area and have not ruled anything out as to what caused the crash.
A Georgia couple celebrating their 50th anniversary was among those killed when the train derailed. Officials identified 74-year-old Donald Varnadoe and his 72-year-old wife Marjorie as two of the three who died in the crash.
Zach Schneider, 28, also died. The Illinois resident was a Green Bay Packers fan and was traveling with his wife, Rebecca, who was not hurt. The couple was traveling to Portland, Oregon, where they spent their honeymoon seven years ago.
Rebecca Schneider described her husband as "a funny, kind, compassionate, intelligent and beautiful man."
"He was an incredible husband, software developer, debate coach, and friend. He loved board games, bonfires, the Packers and good BBQ," she said in a statement. "He was fiercely loved by his wife, family, friends and pets, and will be dearly missed."
Among those who survived without serious injury was Andrew Sivula, who was bound for Portland; he was laying down on a bed in his compartment when he heard "a loud bang and then the cars tipped."
Wayne Freed was switching cars when he held on for dear life. "My legs were dangling down below and the windows broke out down below, which is how we eventually escaped," he said.
Five people were still hospitalized in stable condition as of Sunday, Governor Greg Gianforte said at a news conference, adding that all others who needed medical attention have been released.
On Monday, NTSB investigators combed the scene in search of clues to the cause of the crash. The train had been moving below the 79-mile per hour limit at the time of the derailment. The tracks went through a regular inspection just two days earlier.
"We are not ruling anything out at this point. We have ruled everything in," said NTSB vice chairman Bruce Landsberg.
Landsberg said that NTSB will be at the site for about a week and will have a preliminary report available within 30 days. The NTSB team consists of 14 investigators with expertise in:
- Rail operations
- Human performance
- Signal systems
- Survival factors
- Family assistance
The team is led by Investigator-In-Charge Jim Southworth, who has more than 25 years of experience in rail investigations.
An NTSB investigation typically looks not only at what occurred, but why and proposes recommendations to prevent future similar tragedies.