CROZET, Va. — One person was killed, and six were injured when an Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers to an annual party conference in West Virginia hit a truck here Wednesday morning.
None of the dozens of members of Congress aboard the train, or their accompanying family members and aides, were among the seriously injured. The person who died was one of three men in the disposal truck that had entered the railroad crossing.
He was identified as Christopher Foley, 28, of Louisa County, by Albemarle County Police who said he was a truck passenger.
The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team of nearly two dozen people to the site. Federal Railroad Administration officials also went to the scene to assist, a U.S. Transportation Department spokeswoman said.
Several lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), helped first responders carry one of the injured passengers to an ambulance — a role that Flake said was “too reminiscent” of the lifesaving measures they took to help House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) after a shooting on an Alexandria baseball field this past summer.
Officials at the University of Virginia Medical Center said six patients were transported there from the crash. One was reported to be in critical condition, four were being evaluated, and one had been discharged Wednesday evening, according to hospital officials.
Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) was among those taken to a hospital as a precaution. A spokesman for the congressman said he suffered a concussion and was treated and released.
The crash cast a somber tone on the GOP’s long-planned huddle at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The retreat would carry on “with an adjusted program,” organizers said Wednesday. President Trump is scheduled to address the group Thursday.
“The president has been fully briefed on the situation in Virginia and is receiving regular updates,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has been affected by this incident.”
The crash occurred about 11:20 a.m. at a rural railroad crossing in Crozet, about 110 miles southwest of Washington. The train was carrying about 450 people.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it happened without warning while many members were milling around on the 10-car train. There was no perceptible braking before the crash, he said.
“It was quite a jolt,” Cole said. “It was just, ‘bam.’ ”
“It was a hard impact,” Flake recalled. “It threw everybody up in the air a little.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who was reached by telephone aboard the train, said it took about a quarter-mile for it to stop, and a few of the passengers in his car were “roughed up.”
“Most of us hit a knee or a head on the seat in front of us, but nothing too serious on board,” he said.
The crash was “loud and surprising,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). “We saw debris go by the left side of the train. The part of the truck we [could] see was decimated. Very relieved when the train came to a stop and [was] still on the tracks.”
Outside the car, the truck looked as if it had been cut in half, Lee said. Garbage blanketed the grass. And it was clear that the people inside the truck had fared worse.
BREAKING: GOP train hit a truck on way to retreat. Sources say driver getting medical attention; members okay. Pic-> pic.twitter.com/99xmsGFEEs
— Rachael Bade (@rachaelmbade) January 31, 2018
Immediately after the crash, Cole said, many members who are also doctors tried to leave the train to help the three men who were on the disposal truck. Security officials on the train discouraged them from getting off, he said, but several members did, including Wenstrup, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Reps. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).
“They were very insistent,” Cole said. “Anybody who had any [medical] training was moving quickly.”
Roe, a retired OB/GYN, said it was immediately clear one of the men was deceased. “I think it was an instantaneous death,” he told reporters Wednesday evening. “I don’t think he suffered.”
The wife of one lawmaker — Kathryn Bucshon, an anesthesiologist — tried to intubate the other injured man to maintain an airway. She was unsuccessful, but Wenstrup, a former Army combat surgeon, said the man’s instinctive resistance was a positive sign: “That showed us that there was a chance because he was bucking it.”
Among those on the train, the lawmakers said, was Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician to the U.S. Congress, and the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, the House chaplain. Monahan helped attend to the injured men, Roe said, and Conroy administered last rites to the deceased man, according to Burgess.
Vickie Gresge, a resident of the Grayrock neighborhood where the crash occurred, said she heard the jarring sound — “like a big metal crash; very, very heavy” — and looked out the window to see a cloud of dust near the tracks. She rushed up Lanetown Road, took in the trash strewn about the tracks, then spotted the people emerging from the train.
“When the train doors opened, out of every door, a military-style person with an automatic gun,” Gresge said. “It made me think there were dignitaries on the train — which, apparently, there are.”
“Before the ambulances arrived, there were two helicopters circling,” she said.
Gresge had her son beckon a neighbor, a nurse, who then administered CPR to one of two victims lying on the ground. She said a third man, wearing a reflective vest, was walking around.
The truck belonged to Time Disposal, according to a neighborhood resident and confirmed by a county spokeswoman.
“It’s fresh, and we’re trying to get a hold of it,” said a man answering the phone for Time Disposal. He said a team of company officials was headed to the scene.
The train carrying GOP members to our retreat had a collision, but Rebecca and I are both okay. Security and doctors on board are helping secure the scene and treat injuries.
— Rep. Bradley Byrne (@RepByrne) January 31, 2018
Karen, my staff members, and I are all on the train to the GOP conference and we are all safe.
— Pete Sessions (@PeteSessions) January 31, 2018
After the crash, the lead car of the train, which derailed slightly, was uncoupled from the other cars and will remain on the scene for investigators to assess. The rest of the train carried members of Congress and the other passengers back to Charlottesville Union Station, where they continued to Greenbrier via bus.
According to the Congressional Institute, the GOP retreat will continue with a modified program, which will now include a moment of prayer for those involved in the crash and a security briefing from the sergeant at arms and U.S. Capitol Police.
Burgess, the Texas congressman, said he was “very conflicted” about continuing with the event, but he said the decision by Trump and Vice President Pence to appear put the decision in a different light.
“This is part of our job,” he said. “It is part of our planning process. It is part of how we approach our entire year, so it is important work that’s going to be done. … If the vice president’s going to be there tonight, I better be there, too.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called the incident a “terrible tragedy.” He wrote on Twitter: “We are grateful for the first responders who rushed to the scene and we pray for the victims and their families. May they all be in our thoughts right now.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the crash.
“My condolences, and those of the entire Senate family, go out to the victim’s family, friends, and co-workers,” McConnell said. “Our prayers are with the other accident victims who are fighting to recover from their injuries.”
Wednesday’s crash was Amtrak’s second high-profile wreck in less than two months, a fact that partly prompted D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to call for a congressional hearing on the state of rail safety in the United States.
“The public needs information and assurances on the safety of rail travel before the lengthy NTSB investigation on today’s accident, along with other ongoing NTSB investigations, such as last year’s Amtrak fatal derailment outside of Seattle, concludes,” Norton said. “We provided Amtrak with significant funding. . . . We need to know whether more is needed to address rail safety now.”
The segment of tracks where the crash occurred is owned by CSX Transportation but is leased to Buckingham Branch Railroad — the company that “is responsible for maintenance, signaling and dispatching train traffic on the line,” a CSX spokesman said.
Carrie Brown, a spokeswoman for Buckingham Branch Railroad, said in a statement that the company’s personnel were assisting at the scene.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, motorists and crew members impacted by this,” Brown said.
The crash occurred in a rural area at Route 684 and Lanetown Road in Crozet, at what is known as an “active crossing” involving gates, flashing lights and a “hump” warning sign for approaching drivers. The crossing’s speed limit for trains is 60 mph, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
The thoroughfare runs parallel to the railroad on both sides with a sharp curve into the raised crossing. The direction from which the truck was approaching was not immediately known.
Christine Stewart, who has lived near the crossing for nine years, said she hasn’t seen anyone get stuck there — but has seen people try to speed through the closed crossing gates.
“It’s not unusual for people to try to cut through, even when a train is coming,” Stewart said. “A lot of times, it’s just a big coal train that moves slowly and people don’t want to get stuck waiting. When it’s a passenger train, it goes much faster.”
At a Wednesday night briefing, NTSB member Earl Weener said investigators had just arrived and had little information. He said the investigation would include retrieving the train’s event recorders.
Information about the train’s crew and whether speed or fatigue were factors will be part of the investigation as will the condition of the train, the tracks, crossing and gates. The condition of the driver and the truck’s condition and speed will be studied as well, he said.
He said the investigation would involve several days on the scene and months back at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. Weener deflected when asked to respond to Internet speculation about whether sabotage — such as tampering with the crossing gates — could have been involved.
“The NTSB does safety investigations,” Weener said. “The fact that we’re here means we think it was an accident. If we find anything otherwise, we will let the proper authorities know.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation, which oversees grade crossings at public highways, said there have been three reported crashes within 250 feet of the crossing since 2007. Wednesday’s was the first to involve a train or result in injury, VDOT spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said. In 2016, the driver of a pickup truck hit the crossing gate and fled, Marshall said. Also that year, a distracted driver ran off the road to avoid workers about 100 feet from the crossing.
Almost two decades ago, on Feb. 5, 1999, an incident similar to Wednesday’s crash occurred at the same crossing, according to Railroad Administration documents. A CSX freight train traveling 30 mph struck a vehicle in the crossing. The driver of the vehicle was not inside, and no one was harmed. The train engine was damaged, a report noted.
Amtrak, in a statement said, it is “working with the NTSB, local law enforcement and other relevant agencies to investigate today’s incident in Crozet, Virginia. Our primary concern is for those impacted by this event. It is premature to offer specific comment about this incident, however, it is clear that accidents at rail crossings nationwide are far too common.”
The statement continued: “This is an opportunity to remind everyone about the importance of exercising caution around railroad rights of way. Amtrak continues to work closely with Operation Lifesaver to communicate the dangers of grade crossings. Each year, about 2,000 people are killed or injured in grade crossing and trespassing incidents nationwide.”
Powers and Siddiqui reported from Washington. Mike DeBonis in Charlottesville and Ed O’Keefe, Lori Aratani and Michael Laris in Washington contributed to this report.