The westbound Empire Builder was on its way from Chicago to Seattle. It left the tracks Saturday afternoon near Joplin, which is about 200 miles away. Jason Abrams, Amtrak spokesperson, stated that the train carried approximately 141 passengers and 16 staff members. There were two locomotives on the train, and 10 cars. Eight of them were derail, while others tipped onto their sides.
Trevor Fossen was the first to see it. Joplin resident Trevor Fossen was driving on a dirt road close to the tracks when he noticed a "wall of dust" that was hundreds of feet high.
Fossen said, "I began looking at that and wondering what it was, and then I saw that the train had tipped and derail," and he called 911 to try and get people out. Fossen called his brother to get ladders for those who couldn't climb down from the cars that were resting on their sides.
Jacob Cordeiro, a Rhode Island student, was on a trip with his father to Seattle for his college graduation.
He said that he was in one the front cars, and that he got jostled and thrown from one end of the train to another. He claimed that the train car was thrown from one side of the train to the other near the switch, but it did not slip off the tracks.
Cordeiro stated, "I'm a very big guy and it picked my up from my chair, and threw him into one wall and then threw I into the other."
David Clarke, a railroad safety expert and director of the Center for Transportation Research at University of Tennessee, stated that the locomotives and two cars at its front reached the switch and continued on main track. However, the eight remaining cars were derail. Clarke said that it was not clear if some cars made it onto the second track.
"Did the switching play a role?" Clarke suggested that it could have been that the train's front hit the switch, and that it began fish-tailing. That flipped the train's back.
Clarke suggested that a rail defect could also be a possibility, but noted that not all defects are always detected in regular testing. Clarke said that speed is not likely because the trains on this line are equipped with systems to prevent collisions and excessive speeds.
Allan Zarembski is the director of the University of Delaware's Railway Engineering and Safety Program. He said that he doesn't want any speculation but believed the derailment was caused by an issue with the track or equipment, or both.
Zarembski stated that major human-caused derailments have been "virtually eliminated" by railways since the introduction of positive train control throughout the country.
Matt Jones, a spokesperson for BNSF Railway stated at a press conference that the track on which the accident occurred was last inspected Thursday.
Eric Weiss, spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that a 14-member team of investigators and railroad signal specialists would investigate the accident on BNSF Railway tracks.
Sunday's law enforcement stated that officials from the NTSB and Amtrak as well as BNSF were present at the accident site just west of Joplin. The tracks cut through large, golden-brown wheat fields, which were recently harvested. A truckload of gravel, new railroad ties and large cranes was brought along to the tracks running parallel to U.S. Highway 2.
It is located approximately 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast Helena, and 30 miles (48 km) from Canada's border.
Bill Flynn, Amtrak CEO, expressed condolences for those who have lost loved ones. He said that the company was working with the NTSB and Federal Railroad Administration, and local law enforcement to share their "senses of urgency" in order to determine the cause.
Due to the derailment, Sunday’s westbound Empire Builder train from Chicago was ending in St. Paul, Minnesota. The eastbound train originated in Minnesota.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte stated that BNSF was preparing a replacement track for the NTSB's approval. He said that BNSF had assured him they could get the line up in a short time.
The majority of the injured on the train were released after being treated. Five people who sustained more serious injuries remained at the Benefis Health System in Great Falls, Montana. Sarah Robbin is Liberty County's emergency services coordinator. A hospital spokeswoman stated that two were admitted to the intensive care unit.
Melody Sharpton, a spokesperson for Logan Health in Kalispell, Montana said that two more people were there.
Nick Erickson, Liberty County Sheriff, stated that the names of the deceased would not be released until their relatives are notified.