The engineer who was operating the doomed Amtrak train that derailed and crashed at high speed onto Interstate 5 in December, about 40 miles south of Seattle, Washington, apparently lost track of where he was and as a result went into a 30-mph curve at almost 80 mph, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Thursday.
Investigators earlier had determined that the train was going more than twice the speed limit when it crashed on a curve Dec. 18th, killing three people and injuring 70 others. But they were unable to question the engineer about it earlier because he and a conductor trainee who was with him in the cab were both too seriously injured to be interviewed.
In an update to their investigation released Thursday, NTSB officials said investigators finally were able to question the engineer and the conductor trainee on Jan. 15th. The engineer, a 55-year-old man, told investigators he had made as many as 13 qualifying trips down the track before the inaugural run with paying passengers.
But on the train's debut run, the engineer said he did not recall seeing the milepost sign where he was supposed to begin slowing for the 30-mph curve. He later saw a signal at the start of the accident curve, but mistook it for another signal. He said that as soon as he saw the 30-mph sign at the start of the curve, he applied the brakes.
Seconds later, the train derailed and crashed as it entered the curve. The engine hurtled off an embankment at high speed and down onto I-5, dragging cars filled with screaming passengers behind it. The crash and derailment on the inaugural day of a new Amtrak express route south of Tacoma, Washington killed three people, injured 70 and caused an estimated $40.4 million in damage, according to the NTSB.
Of the 70 who were injured, 62 were aboard the train and eight were in vehicles that were struck on I-5 during the crash. The conductor trainee who was also in the locomotive cab with the engineer told investigators that the engineer appeared alert during the pre-run briefing and while operating the train. Just prior to the derailment, the conductor trainee said he heard the engineer say or mumble something.
He then looked up and sensed that the train was becoming "airborne." NTSB officials said they are continuing to look into other evidence that as they investigate the deadly crash, including information from cameras, the locomotive event data recorder and other sources. The entire investigation is expected to last 12 to 24 months.
More information about the crash can be found here: https://go.usa.gov/xnfU6
Affiliate KOMO-TV contributed to this report.