MENDON, Mo. — Federal investigators said Tuesday their investigation into a deadly collision between an Amtrak train and a dump truck in rural Missouri is focused on the “passive crossing” that allowed vehicles on a gravel road to readily move across a section of track with a 90 mph speed limit.
Speaking at a school a few miles from the site of a collision that left four people dead and injured more than 100, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy said a contractor’s truck carrying materials for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project drove into the path of the Southwest Chief that was headed for Chicago.
Missouri State Highway Patrol officials said Tuesday that a third passenger on the train died at a hospital of injuries suffered in the derailment, increasing the death toll to four. An occupant of the dump truck also was killed. Authorities said about 150 people were taken to 10 hospitals for treatment of injuries that range from minor to serious in nature.
While there were railroad crossing signs at the site, Homendy said Tuesday, “there were no arms, there were not warning lights, there were no bells,” adding that such setups are common across the country. There are about 130,000 such “passive” crossings nationwide — about half of all crossings in the United States, she said.
Investigators are continuing to interview members of the train’s crew and are downloading footage from two forward-facing cameras. They are downloading the contents of an event recorder to determine the train’s speed and how the brakes were applied. They are also seeking to retrieve information from electronics on the truck.
Homendy said she does not have reason to believe any type of mechanical or track problem was at play.
“Our concerns are very focused on this grade crossing, the approach to the grade crossing and survivability after an accident,” Homendy said.
She said state and county officials, along with BNSF Railway, which owns the track, “would be responsible for installing active warning devices at this crossing,” including equipment such as gates, bells or other warnings when trains are approaching.
In a February rail plan, state transportation officials included the crossing outside Mendon, where the collision occurred, on a list that detailed coming safety improvements. The state’s highways and transportation commission approved the plan to improve the crossing last July, according to state transportation department communications director Linda Wilson Horn. She said in an email that the department “reached out to BNSF and the County in early 2022 to inform them about starting” a diagnostic review of the crossing, where precise safety measures are jointly hashed out.
Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the state reached out to begin the process on multiple crossings, “however, no date had been set for the diagnostic reviews by MoDOT.”
“We could not move forward with additional crossing warning devices until a diagnostic had been set up and all parties agreed to what warning devices would be installed,” Kent said.
Horn said the reviews “typically take 3 years or so to get through the process and ready for construction.” The Mendon project was estimated to cost $400,000.
The train was on its way to Chicago from Los Angeles when it derailed while carrying 275 passengers and 12 crew members, according to Amtrak. Injured passengers were flown to hospitals in Columbia and Kansas City, Mo., which is about 100 miles southwest of the crash site.
Eight cars and two locomotives derailed in the collision, with cars overturning onto their sides.
Amtrak pledged support to the NTSB investigation, saying it is continuing to help passengers who spent the night in nearby schools and other shelters. The railroad said in a statement that passengers are being rerouted to their destinations onboard trains or buses.
Passengers on the train recounted being thrown several feet before climbing over suitcases and seats to pull themselves, family members and others out of the train.
Tom Fistere was one stop from completing his 6,000-mile trip around the country when he heard a loud bang Monday.
“I just knew we had a problem,” the retired emergency medical technician said. “I glanced off to the side, looking ahead, and I saw a dust cloud, which means I knew we had hit a vehicle. I’m used to working emergency services, and I thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t get away from it.’”
Fistere took the two-week trip as a retirement gift to himself. He said he considers himself fortunate because he was on the right side of the dining car and seated behind a table, which acted like a seat belt.
“At first I thought we were just starting to slow down. I thought it was kind of noisy, but maybe we would stay upright,” he said. “And then we tipped.”
After the train came to rest on its side, he walked out a door that was slightly ajar and jumped four feet to the ground. Before escaping, he helped evacuate the dining car and waited inside with one person who needed medical attention. Fistere waited seven hours for family to drive from Minneapolis to pick him up.
“I’ll probably get on a train eventually,” he said, “but not right away.”
Monday’s derailment followed an incident Sunday in which three people in a sedan were killed about 20 miles west of Stockton, Calif., when the car tried to cross in front of an Amtrak train.
Over the past decade, three major Amtrak derailments have resulted in 14 passenger deaths, including a crash in Montana last fall.
More than half of those victims were traveling in a Northeast Regional train that veered off the tracks in Philadelphia in 2015, Amtrak’s worst crash in more than 20 years. The train derailed after hitting a 50 mph curve at 106 mph, killing eight and injuring more than 200. NTSB investigators concluded the engineer thought he was entering the curve that followed, where the speed limit was 110 mph.
Less than three years later, three people were killed and 65 injured when an Amtrak train making its inaugural trip on new service from Seattle to Portland, Ore., derailed near Dupont, Wash. Amtrak Cascades Train 501 was crossing an overpass when it derailed, toppling cars onto one of the busiest highways on the West Coast. The engineer entered a 30 mph curve too quickly because of inadequate training on the route and equipment, an NTSB investigation concluded.
Both crashes prompted investigations and renewed calls for the automatic braking system known as positive train control (PTC), which was implemented in all railroads last year. The NTSB said the Washington state and Philadelphia crashes could have been avoided if PTC had been installed.
NTSB investigators are still working to determine the cause of a Sept. 25 derailment in Montana. The Empire Builder train was on its way from Chicago to Seattle with 141 passengers and 17 crew members.
Train derailments are rare, and according to experts and federal rail incident data, they are also becoming less frequent.
Amtrak derailments make up about 2 percent of all train derailments involving major railroads across country — a small share partly because the passenger operation accounts for a fraction of train traffic nationwide.
In the last decade, Amtrak has averaged 24 derailments annually, according to data reported to the Federal Railroad Administration. That number is down from about 43 derailments that occurred annually over the previous decade.
The vast majority cause no injury or death, according to the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis. Most are the result of track, mechanical or human factors, such as improperly lined switches, track problems, speeding and issues related to snow, ice or mud on tracks.
According to an analysis from the Eno Center for Transportation, the two leading causes of fatalities on U.S. railroads involve trespassing on railroad property and trains colliding with vehicles. Those fatal incidents have been on an upward trend since 2012, reversing decades of progress, according to the report “Safer Railroading: A Guide Toward Targeted Safety Policy.”
Trespassing and rail crossing incidents make up less than a third of safety incidents reported by railroads but are responsible for 97 percent of fatalities, according to the Eno report. The infrastructure law that passed last year could improve rail safety, industry leaders say, with $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants, as well as another $3 billion for grade-crossing safety improvements.
Late Monday, in a school auditorium near the site of the Missouri derailment, Loralai Kruid sat silently at the bottom of the indoor bleachers while she waited for Amtrak officials to arrive. The recent high school graduate was exhausted.
It had been six hours since she crawled out of the train wreckage and phoned her parents. She had boarded the train before noon Monday in Kansas City with high school classmates traveling to Chicago to compete at the Future Business Leaders of America’s National Leadership Conference.
“It was unreal,” she said hours later with her parents, who drove 135 miles from Kansas. “It’s the last thing you would think would happen.”
In the scramble to escape the mangled train, she lost her wallet — and along with it, her new University of Kansas student identification and a driver’s license that arrived in the mail last week. “But thankfully I only lost my wallet,” she said.
Russell Clarke, 24, was jolted awake after a week working as a ranger while hiking more than 70 miles at a Boy Scouts ranch in New Mexico. The Eagle Scout was in a train car with 16 other scouts and eight adult scout leaders trying to get home when the train struck the dump truck.
“I was seated on the right side, so I didn’t have very far to fall,” Clarke said. “I was asleep when it happened. I didn’t have my shoes on. I lost my glasses, so I couldn’t see anything. And there was blood on my hands.” Eventually, his glasses and shoes were found under his seat.
Clarke said he pulled two people out of a train window and helped someone get on the bus.
Also on the train was Blaine Bessemer, who was taking his son Brent, 24, on a three-week adventure to see the United States. The trip, a joint birthday and graduation gift, started two weeks ago in Atlanta. The plan was to travel through New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Denver and Kansas City before heading toward Chicago, Boston and New York, then home to Atlanta.
They never made it to Chicago.
“I knew something was wrong when the engineer hit the brakes pretty hard. Then a split-second later — bang,” Blaine Bessemer said as he sat near the top of the Northwestern High School bleachers. “It was a really loud bang, like a bomb. And then there was a pause, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s going to be okay.’”
The train then lifted off the tracks and crashed onto its side, flinging other passengers on top of him.
Bessemer climbed over seats and up toward the emergency window, which originally was across the aisle but now faced the sky. Passengers struggled to open the window, he said, until he found the cable release. He looked out and saw seven of the eight rail cars on their sides.
“That’s when I started getting people out, like my son and anybody who wasn’t really injured. There was a woman behind me who was severely injured. She was laying right next to my seat,” he said. “The guy who fell on me when the train went over, he was bleeding pretty bad from the head, and his nose was bleeding. He said he broke his nose.”
Bessemer climbed out and saw 25 or 30 other people perched on the top of different train cars, rescuing fellow passengers by pulling them through the windows then leading them down the side of the toppled cars. Bessemer said he worked beside a farmer who ran to the train to help.
When first responders appeared, Bessemer said he helped carry people on backboards away from the train to the triage area across the tracks. They waited for a bus to take them to Kansas City, where they hoped to catch a flight to Boston for the Fourth of July weekend before returning home.
George, Lazo and Laris reported from Washington.