NTSB hasn’t interviewed engineer in fatal Washington Amtrak derailment

SEATTLE — More than two weeks after a speeding Amtrak train derailed south of Tacoma, killing three people and injuring dozens, federal investigators have not been able to interview the engineer who was driving the train.

The National Transportation Safety Board released the first information on the engineer Thursday morning, although it withheld the employee’s name.

The engineer is 55 years old, had been working for Amtrak since May 2004 and had been promoted to engineer in August 2013, the NTSB said.

But the federal agency has been unable to interview the engineer, or the other crew member who was in the lead locomotive, because of their injuries sustained in the crash. And the preliminary report released Thursday offered virtually no new information as to why the train was traveling nearly 50 miles per hour faster than the speed limit when it crashed.

Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said investigators don’t have an estimate as to when they’ll be able to interview the engineer and the conductor. He said such a delay is not unusual when crew members are injured.

“It’s really uncertain what their recovery schedule is going to be,” Knudson said. “We’ve made our intention known.”

Sim Osborn, a Seattle plaintiffs attorney who said he expected to file a lawsuit related the crash in the next few days, said the engineer would almost certainly not talk to investigators without a lawyer.

“Three people died, there’s a chance there could be criminal charges and you don’t want to go in and talk to the federal investigators without a criminal lawyer and a civil lawyer,” Osborn said. “He may be given advice by his union; there’s a lot of different reasons why he wouldn’t talk.”

The train, carrying 77 passengers and six crew members, derailed in DuPont, Pierce County, on Dec. 18. It was the first passenger trip on a new stretch of track. The train was traveling 78 mph when it derailed on a curve of track with a 30-mph speed limit.

The other crew member in the locomotive, Garrick Freeman, 48, was a conductor riding along to familiarize himself with the new stretch of track. Freeman filed a lawsuit against Amtrak Wednesday, alleging that the railroad failed to provide safe working conditions. It was one of two lawsuits filed Wednesday.

A third lawsuit was filed Thursday on behalf of a man whose car, on Interstate 5 below the derailment, was crushed, resulting in “multiple traumatic fractures.”

Freeman was on the train solely to familiarize himself with the route, his attorney said. The train’s working conductor was not in the lead locomotive. Knudson did not know whether the working conductor has been interviewed by investigators.

The NTSB has not yet asked Freeman for an interview, said Anthony Petru, Freeman’s attorney.

“I expect that they will,” Petru said. “The NTSB has been very appropriate and reasonable in timing its access to people with information, so that they don’t go into the hospital room for someone who is on medication and in pain.”

Freeman was taken to Harborview Medical Center after the crash, where he stayed for nearly two weeks before being discharged to a rehab facility on Saturday.

Three people were killed in the crash and 62 passengers and crew members were injured, according to the NTSB report. Additionally, 14 cars and trucks on Interstate 5 below the derailment were hit by either the train or by debris, injuring eight people.

The NTSB estimated the damage from the crash at more than $40 million.

An initial review by the NTSB, published four days after the crash, found that neither the engineer nor Freeman was using a cellphone or other personal electronic device before the crash.

That review found that the engineer “made a comment regarding an over speed condition” about six seconds before the derailment. The engineer appeared to apply the locomotive’s brakes before the crash, but did not put the brake handle in emergency-braking mode, the review found.

A transcript of the audio recording inside the locomotive will be released, Knudson said, but likely not for several months.

Positive Train Control, an automated emergency braking system, was not in use at the time of the crash. The NTSB report says, essentially, that the system, which is estimated to be ready on this stretch of tracks sometime this year, would have prevented the crash.

Had it been in use, Positive Train Control “would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and stop(ped) the train,” the NTSB said.

The train that derailed was operated by Amtrak, but owned and paid for by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Sound Transit owns the stretch of track where the crash happened.

All three lawsuits filed to date cite the absence of Positive Train Control among their claims against Amtrak. A federal deadline to equip trains with the safety technology has been repeatedly pushed back and now stands at Dec. 31, 2018.

“PTC systems were affordable, available, feasible and intended to improve safety,” the lawsuit filed Thursday says. “Amtrak knowingly and intentionally failed to put in place and utilize an operable PTC or similar safety control system on the Amtrak Train No. 501 and the segment of railroad track where this tragic and preventable accident occurred.”

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