Emma Pesis took trains from Salem, Ore., home to Davis every winter break during her four undergraduate years at Willamette University. After Monday, she’ll be sticking to car rides for the foreseeable future.
Pesis was one of approximately 80 passengers aboard Amtrak Cascades Train 501, which derailed on its maiden voyage in DuPont, Wash., on Monday morning. Three people were killed and more than 70 were injured when the train sped around a turn at 50 mph above the posted speed limit and fell onto Interstate 5, colliding with several automobiles and stopping traffic for hours.
Pesis was riding in a train car that wound up dangling over the edge of a bridge onto the freeway.
“We could see smoke rising. Everything smelled like oil and grease,” Pesis said. “It felt like a really surreal, awful dream. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t feel real.”
A graduate student at Portland State University, Pesis boarded the train after visiting her fiancé, Taylor Mutch, in Seattle. Her father Stephen had flown up to meet her in Portland, from where the two would drive back to Davis for Christmas.
Pesis nestled into Car 7, Seat 13 shortly after 6 a.m., the train’s departure delayed eight minutes due to what was described over the intercom as minor mechanical issues. She propped her head up on a pillow leaning against the window, slid her legs across the unoccupied aisle seat next to her and viewed “The Office” on her iPad.
Couples behind and across the aisle from Pesis dozed off to sleep, their snores gently piercing the quiet compartment. She nodded off intermittently as well, but was awake when the front of the train derailed over the side of a bridge just south of Tacoma.
Gravity tugged Pesis’ iPad from her hands and dumped her sideways onto the floor, bruising her right side but keeping her from flying across the cabin like the bags tumbling from overhead storage.
“It was almost like a really bad roller coaster ride. Everything was bumping up and down, moving sideways. Then the lights flickered and went out,” she said. “Everyone trying to figure out what was going on around us.”
Car 7 hung from the bridge onto the freeway. Across the aisle from Pesis, two people’s heads slammed into the seatbacks in front of them. A woman behind Pesis was thrown across the car and had her head pinned under one of the seats.
When Pesis tried to walk over to help the trapped woman, she found shock and slanted flooring had turned her legs to jelly. She crawled across the aisle and vainly attempted to free the woman, who had suffered a serious leg injury as well, before exiting through the front of the compartment onto the roof of a semi-truck below.
“It was a lot of people shaking, a lot of people crying, a lot of people with head wounds,” she said. “I must have seen 15 people strapped in (to gurneys) and carried out with back or head injuries.”
An ambulance took Pesis and a two other victims to a hospital in Puyallup, Wash., where she met Mutch. Stephen arrived in Emma’s car shortly thereafter, and the father and daughter resumed their journey south on Tuesday morning.
“Things went from very sunny to very dark pretty quickly,” Stephen Pesis said. “One minute (Emma) was texting me saying she was glad I got into Portland OK, then all of a sudden I have a text from her saying, ‘I’ve been in a train wreck.’”
The cause of the crash had yet to be determined as of Tuesday afternoon. The train was going 80 mph around a curve with a 30 mph limit, according to the National Safety Transportation Board, and investigators are reportedly looking into whether a lead engineer was distracted by an employee-in-training.
Positive train control, or PTC, uses sensors between the track and train to automatically slow careening vehicles down. PTC had been installed on the stretch of track where the train went airborne but was not yet operational Monday, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Amtrak announced Monday it had established an incident hotline after the crash, though Pesis said the company hadn’t reached out to her or other passengers she spoke to directly.
She’ll still take the train again, she said. One day. When the bruises heal.