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Investigators Work To Determine The Cause Of Saturday's Amtrak Derailment


Federal authorities are investigating Saturday's deadly Amtrak derailment in rural Montana, south of the Canadian border. Officials say it'll be a month before they have a preliminary report on what happened. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: It's too early to say what caused 8 out of 10 cars on the westbound Empire Builder train to derail. Bruce Landsberg with the National Transportation Safety Board spoke at a press conference in Chester, Mont., yesterday.


BRUCE LANDSBERG: Generally, it's going to be something that some person did or didn't do. And so it takes us a while to go ahead and walk that backwards.

RAGAR: Landsberg said the train was traveling within the speed limit of 79 miles per hour and that the tracks were last inspected two days before the crash. A freight train passed over them 80 minutes earlier without incident. He says the crash appears to have happened ahead of a switch in the tracks.


LANDSBERG: It's possible that the switch may have compounded the derailment.

RAGAR: Experts are studying footage from cameras on both trains' locomotives. The Amtrak train was carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew members from Chicago to Seattle. In addition to the three passengers who died, seven were admitted to Montana hospitals. Some may have been ejected from the train's cars. Sarah Robbin, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Liberty County, called the derailment a once-in-a-lifetime event for first responders in the area, many of whom were volunteers.

SARAH ROBBIN: It was tragic. They saw things that nobody should have to see.

RAGAR: Robbin said it could have been worse. Tressa Keller with Logan Health agrees. She works at the 21-bed critical access hospital in Shelby, about 50 miles west of where the train derailed, that cared for 20 passengers. Montana hospitals have been severely strained by COVID patients in recent weeks. Keller says ones in rural areas have worked together closely during the pandemic, and that network proved important in responding to the crash over the weekend. Keller says three other Logan Health hospitals sent resources and medical staff to Shelby to help treat injured passengers.

TRESSA KELLER: We definitely know that many hospitals are experiencing capacity challenges during this time. So in this situation, when we weren't able to collaborate with many other facilities, that definitely made a difference.

RAGAR: Keller says the derailment is likely the largest disaster the hospital has seen in more than a decade. The most critically injured patients were taken to bigger hospitals more than a hundred miles away. For NPR news, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.