(Dodge City, Kansas – March 14, 2016)
Seven cars of Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Southwest Chief derailed and five rolled onto their sides just after midnight, CDT, Monday morning, injuring at least 30 of the 142 passengers and crew members on board. BNSF, Amtrak and National Transportation Safety Board officials were flocking to the scene in a rural, heavily-travelled section of BNSF railroad track near the southwestern Kansas community of Cimarron about 20 miles west of Dodge City.
Emergency responders from Gray County and five individual communities raced to the scene of the early-morning crash which saw a total of 31 people, all reported to be passengers, to Western Plains Hospital in Dodge City. Two of the 16 patients it received were listed in “critical” condition, and St. Catherine’s Medical Center in Garden City, where the rest of the injured were taken for treatment.
Passenger Daniel Szczerba of Los Angeles, CA told Wichita TV station KWCH that “We realized something definitely was wrong after the shaking and we stopped. We got out and saw that four or five cars in the back, the coach cars, were on their sides.” Szczerba added that “A lot of people (were) just looking for family members. Of course, all the lights went out. It was dark. People traveling in groups of four and five got thrown around the car as it turned over and lost people as they were trying to get out of the emergency exits.“
The train’s locomotive engineer reportedly saw a “kink” in the rails ahead of his train and may have attempted to slow it from its speed of 75 MPH. Local officials were saying an earlier-occurring vehicular accident at that point could have produced damaged tracks. The Chicago Tribune reported that the engineer placed the train in emergency braking mode when he noticed what was described as “a significant bend” in the rail, according to an unidentified, by name or entity, authority. But in anticipation the arrival of an NTSB rail accident investigation team, who planned a 5:00 P.M., CDT Monday news conference to offer a preliminary overview of the facts surrounding the accident, which also shut down vehicular and commercial traffic on parallel U.S Highway 50. Yet, there was question as to why, if the track structure might have been suspect, the train was still barreling down the questionable track so near the 79 mph maximum speed authorized for trains through the corridor.
Kansas City-bound passenger Derek Kemp, who was being treated for a chest contusion and a bruised arm from the wreck, told KWCH TV News reporters that he heard a “clack, clack, clack” noise before the accident happened.
Passenger Kelsey Wilson, 21, of Pueblo, CO, told KSN Fox News Wichita that she was on her way back to Truman State University in Kirksville, MO following Spring Break. She and her traveling companion, Daniel Aiken, also 21, of Lenexa, KS, escaped through the top and slid down the side of the overturned rail car in which the pair was riding. She “passed out” and had to be transported to one of the hospitals for treatment of her trauma. Aiken, meanwhile, said that he heard people scream during the ordeal, but that calm was restored after the frightened passengers realized that the derailed train “wasn’t going to blow up.”
Wichita’s KAKE-TV reporters interviewed Susan Morgan, the mother of one of the affected passengers, who told them that her daughter had to be assisted in escaping from the train’s wreckage.
Uninjured but still stranded passengers were being sheltered at the 4-H recreation center in Cimarron, while local and area grocery stores and restaurants provided the displaced with meals until buses could arrive to ferry them to their destinations. Meanwhile, Amtrak was detouring its westbound Southwest Chief over a competing rail route.