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Amtrak survivor tells how he managed to grab on to a coffee table when train derailed

A survivor of the deadly Amtrak derailment in Montana has told how he managed to make it out of the wreck alive by clinging onto a table bolted to the floor as the upturned train was dragged along the tracks.  

Wayne Freed, 70, was among the 141 passengers traveling on the Seattle-bound Empire Builder train on Saturday when it suddenly derailed outside of Joplin, Montana, killing three people and injuring dozens. 

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, the retired college professor recalled grabbing a small coffee table and holding on for dear life to keep him from falling through the glass windows after the train tipped over. 

Freed, who’s from Upstate New York, said he was mid-way through the 45-hour trip and was passing through scenic north-central Montana on a beautiful day. 

He had just returned from his sleeper car to retrieve his cell phone charger and was relaxing in the lounge car, an area of the train with swivel seats and large windows to enjoy the views along the way.

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Three people were killed and more than 50 were injured in Joplin, Montana on Saturday after an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it suddenly derailed 

The westbound Empire Builder was en route to Seattle from Chicago, with two locomotives and 10 cars, when it left the tracks about 4pm on Saturday

The westbound Empire Builder was en route to Seattle from Chicago, with two locomotives and 10 cars, when it left the tracks about 4pm on Saturday

Freed was enjoying the beautiful views of north-central Montana in the Empire Builder's lounge car, also known as the observation car, when the train went off the tracks. Pictured:  Stock photo of the sightseer lounge car of the California Zephyr Amtrak train

Freed was enjoying the beautiful views of north-central Montana in the Empire Builder’s lounge car, also known as the observation car, when the train went off the tracks. Pictured:  Stock photo of the sightseer lounge car of the California Zephyr Amtrak train 

‘I wanted to be in this car as we were going to be soon entering into Glacier National Park to see the sites and I wanted to take some pictures,’ he told DailyMail.com.  

But just minutes after plugging in his cell phone and taking a seat, Freed said he suddenly felt a big jolt and could ‘hear and feel the train wheels dragging across the rocks on the side of the train tracks.’

He said it felt like everything was in slow motion as the train car slowly started to tip over to about a 45-degree angle.

‘I thought it was going to stop at this point, but it didn’t.’

Wayne Freed, 70, was among the 141 passengers traveling on a Seattle-bound Amtrak train on Saturday when it suddenly derailed outside of Joplin, Montana

Wayne Freed, 70, was among the 141 passengers traveling on a Seattle-bound Amtrak train on Saturday when it suddenly derailed outside of Joplin, Montana

That’s when Freed said he noticed a coffee table in the lounge car bolted to the floor and used it as an anchor. 

‘I grabbed onto it to hold myself up, by this time the car had completely tipped over on it’s side but was still moving. The table was now horizontal instead of vertical.

‘The train car’s windows were now below my feet and I didn’t want to stand on them as I was worried, they were going to break out.

‘My legs are dangling down, about two feet under me are windows, which should be the side window but are now on the floor.

‘Then all of the windows below me started breaking out because of the track ballast was hitting into them. Glass and rocks were flying everywhere.

‘It seemed like the entire derailment last about two minutes but it was more like 15 seconds.

He believes the train was traveling at normal track speed, 79mph. 

When the train finally came to a stop, Freed said the entire car was consumed with dust and he could hardly see.  

But even in the midst of the chaos, he doesn’t remember many people yelling or screaming.

Freed shared photos of the aftermath with DailyMail.com. The retired professor said the entire crash occurred in 15 seconds

Freed shared photos of the aftermath with DailyMail.com. The retired professor said the entire crash occurred in 15 seconds 

Five out of the 12 cars of the Empire Builder derailed, with the last three cars detached completely from the rest of them

Five out of the 12 cars of the Empire Builder derailed, with the last three cars detached completely from the rest of them

Various views of the derailed Amtrak train Empire Builder in a remote part of Northern Montana in between the towns of Chester and Joplin

Various views of the derailed Amtrak train Empire Builder in a remote part of Northern Montana in between the towns of Chester and Joplin

‘People were calling out to see if anyone was hurt, most of the people including myself I think we’re in a state of shock,’ he said. 

When the dust settled, Freed and several of the passengers in his car exited through the broken windows. 

He said: ‘There was about a two-foot clearance, but we were a little hesitant because we were worried the car which was now on its side could roll down the embankment and we would all be crushed.’

Recalling the incident from a Super 8 Motel in Cardon, Montana, some 50 miles from the accident, Freed said: ‘The lounge car is the place to be in if you are traveling by train, it’s mostly glass.

‘The glass starts at your knees and goes all the way up to the ceiling.

‘But it’s not the place to be for a derailment, but other than that it’s a great place.’

Freed added: ‘At the time I wasn’t worried I was going to die, I was in survival mode. 

‘Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, it could have been much worse. I was pretty sure if I didn’t hold onto the table I could have dropped through the broken windows and at the very least I could have at least been severely hurt.’

Freed said he escaped with minimal injuries, bruises on his legs from grasping onto the coffee table.

He did see some people with other injuries but wasn’t sure of the extent of them.

Five out of the 12 cars of the Empire Builder derailed, with the last three cars detached completely from the rest of them.

Freed revealed he’s a train aficionado and had traveled on Amtrak trains and the Chicago to Seattle route countless times before the derailment. 

‘I’ve been on every Amtrak train has, and have ridden this route several times. I’ve been riding Amtrak since 1974 and have traveled more than 100,000 miles,’ he said.  

This derailment isn’t going to stop him from getting back onto a train: ‘I’m ready to get back on a train.’

Sarah Robbin Liberty County Montana Disaster Service Coordinator, told DailyMail.com they received calls for help around 3:57pm on Saturday and several responders arrived at the scene with minutes of the 911 call.

Robbin said of the 143 passengers and 13 crew members who were on board, there were three fatalities and approximately 50 people send to local area hospital, five are still hospitalized in stable condition.

It is suspected that the train derailed near the switch at East Buelow. Pictured: People use ladders to climb up the side of train cars to help trapped passengers escape

It is suspected that the train derailed near the switch at East Buelow. Pictured: People use ladders to climb up the side of train cars to help trapped passengers escape

The cause of the derailment is unclear and still under investigation, officials said

The cause of the derailment is unclear and still under investigation, officials said  

Amtrak's Empire Builder derailed near Joplin, Montana around 4pm MST

Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed near Joplin, Montana around 4pm MST

‘The train tracks which are owned by BSNF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC) were just inspected on September 23rd,’ continued Robbin.

While Freed and most of the other passengers where able to escape any serious injuries there were three fatalities. 

One of three people killed was identified as Missouri engineer Zach Schneider, 28, who was headed for a vacation to Portland, Oregon with his wife Becca.  

Zach, who was from St. Louis and worked for payments firm Stripe, was killed after several of the train cars left the tracks and toppled over onto their sides.

He was identified by a GoFundMe page set up to raise money for his funeral. 

Becca, 26, was traveling with him but survived. She has since posted photos of herself with her late spouse on Facebook, but has not commented.

Family friend Caleb Morris, who created the page, paid tribute to Schneider by saying he was one of the ‘sweetest, smartest, and most unique people I know.’

‘Zach always used this to push for a better world where everyone was included. I have always respected his ability to think differently. Thankful to have been blessed by knowing you, Zach,’ wrote Morris in a heartfelt plea for donations.

The other two victims killed have not been identified, with five other passengers badly injured by the derailment still being treated in hospital.

The last train car was completely on its side from the derailment

The last train car was completely on its side from the derailment 

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said Sunday his firm was distraught over the derailment, whose cause has not yet been identified.

‘We are in mourning for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment of the Empire Builder train Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, on the BNSF Railway, as well as the many others who were injured,’ Amtrak’s Bill Flynn said.

‘We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers.’

In the statement Flynn said the company was cooperating with the investigation. He added they are working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Railroad Administration, local law enforcement and response agencies.

‘Amtrak’s immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time,’ Flynn added.

He said the company’s incident response team has been initiated. Amtrak has sent emergency personnel and company leadership to help support passengers, employees and their families.

A 14-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team including investigators and specialists in railroad signals were looking into the cause of the derailment on a BNSF Railway main track that involved no other trains or equipment, board spokesman Eric Weiss said.

The accident scene is about 30 miles from the Canadian border.

Most of the people on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but seven people who were more seriously hurt remained at the Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, Montana, according to Sarah Robbin, Liberty County emergency services coordinator.

Another two people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Montana, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.

Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the rest of the names of the dead would not be released until relatives had been notified.

Ms. Robbin said nearby residents had rushed to help when the derailment occurred.

‘We are so fortunate to live where we do, where neighbors help neighbors,’ she said.

Amtrak said it had sent emergency personnel and other officials to the site to help passengers, employees and local officials. It said company officials had been ‘deeply saddened’ to learn of the deaths.

Crews appear to be using ladders to get on top of the cars in what appears to be an rescue effort. Ambulances and emergency vehicles are on the scene

Crews appear to be using ladders to get on top of the cars in what appears to be an rescue effort. Ambulances and emergency vehicles are on the scene

Following the derailment, Sunday’s westbound Empire Builder from Chicago was terminating in Minneapolis, and the eastbound train was originating in Minneapolis.

Passenger Megan Vandervest told The New York Times she was awoken by the derailment.

‘My first thought was that we were derailing because, to be honest, I have anxiety and I had heard stories about trains derailing, Vandervest, from Minneapolis, said.

‘My second thought was that’s crazy. We wouldn’t be derailing. Like, that doesn’t happen.’

She told the newspaper that the car behind hers was tilted, the one behind that was tipped over, and the three cars behind that ‘had completely fallen off the tracks and were detached from the train’.

Speaking from the Liberty County Senior Centre, where some passengers were being taken, Vandervest said it had felt like ‘extreme turbulence on a plane’.

Residents of communities near the crash site quickly mobilized to help.

Chester councilor Rachel Ghekiere said she and others had helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were taken to a school.

‘I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,’ she said.

‘They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.’

Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw railway crash investigations for several years at the NTSB, said the agency would not rule out human error or any other potential causes for now.

‘There are still human performance issues examined by NTSB to be sure that people doing the work are qualified and rested and doing it properly,’ Chipkevich said.

Chipkevich said track conditions had historically been a significant cause of train accidents. He noted that most of the track that Amtrak used was owned by freight railways and depended on those companies for safety maintenance.

Safety expert and former Amtrak conductor says derailment could have been caused by badly maintained tracks or a driver slamming on brakes to avoid running a stop signal

Zach Schneider, 28, and his wife Becca, 26, were both onboard the train at the time

Zach Schneider, 28, and his wife Becca, 26, were both onboard the train at the time

Zach Schneider is pictured in photos from his Facebook page. Zach was killed on September 25 2021, when an Amtrak train derailed in Montana, on his way to Portland

Zach Schneider is pictured with wife Becca Schneider in photos from her Instagram page. The couple had been married since 2016

Zach Schneider is pictured in photos from his Facebook page. Zach was killed on September 25 2021, when an Amtrak train derailed in Montana, on his way to Portland

A rail safety consultant suggested that the train derailment could have been caused by the driver ‘jamming on’ the locomotive’s brakes to avoid running a stop signal. 

Former Amtrak conductor turned safety consultant Michael Callanan told Dailymail.com that there is a ‘distinct possibility’ that sudden braking was a factor, based on the proximity of a stop signal to the site of the crash.

He said another explanation could be ill-maintained tracks.

BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks where the crash occurred, and Amtrak, which owns the train, are looking into the derailment, alongside federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected on Thursday.

Per the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, all trains must install ‘Positive Train Control,’ a satellite-controlled system that automatically stops a locomotive before accidents occur.

However, Callanan said that a number of railroads have put off the expensive installations and petitioned government officials for more time.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track or equipment, or a combination of both.

Railways have ‘virtually eliminated’ major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said.

‘I would be surprised if this was a human-factor derailment,’ Zarembski said.

It is unclear whether the Empire Builder 7/27 was outfitted with PTC equipment.

The National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday it is launching a 14-member ‘go team’ to investigate the derailment.

Callanan told DailyMail.com that the number of agencies involved is one of the elements that will stretch out that investigation, which he said could take up to two years.

‘They’re going to download a black box [that] measures everything – what position the throttle was in, what kind of breaks were put on, how fast he was going,’ Callanan said.

‘They’re going to download the dash cam, they’re going to drug test the whole crew to see if there was any drugs and alcohol involved.’

He said that the National Transportation Safety Board will ‘take that train to a warehouse, piece everything together and test every part of the train – every car, [and the] breaks on every car.’

Witnesses – each person who was riding the train and anyone who can be found that saw the crash from outside the train – will all be interviewed by the agencies.

Meanwhile, during the long-spanning investigation, all of the employees who were manning that train will be ‘taken out of service.’

Amtrak employees have the option to buy into insurance, he said, but most don’t.

He added: ‘Hopefully the employees that did not pay into that have money saved up.’

Amtrak said in a statement Sunday: ‘We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident.’ 


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