‘Holy cow, so the train is actually on the road?’ The wreck of Amtrak 501

Monday’s Amtrak 501 derailment was horrific, especially for passengers and their families. But it was also a story of courage by those passengers, along with witnesses and emergency responders. This is an inside view of what happened on Dec. 18.

Rudi Wetzel was napping in his seat, his hat pulled over his eyes, when he awoke to what he thought was an explosion.

How this story was reported

This story, an inside look at Amtrak 501’s derailment, is based on the accounts of survivors, their families and emergency workers and onlookers who rushed into action.

It also draws from 911 dispatch recordings, a news conference recording and photos reviewed by Seattle Times staffers.

A retired Los Angeles police officer, the 81-year-old had boarded Amtrak 501 in Seattle earlier that morning. He was on his way back to Centralia after visiting his girlfriend in Kirkland.

Now he felt his body lift from the train seat, and then he was in the air, flying through darkness.

• • •

Just before 6 a.m. Monday, Seattle’s King Street Station was dark except for the glow of TV monitors and Christmas lights.

They must not have re-timed the lights for the new train, figured Jim Scott, a KING 5 television news photographer.

For Scott, it was a relaxed morning shooting a “fluff piece” with reporter Alex Rozier. They would take the first ticketed ride on the new Point Defiance Bypass line, meant to provide more frequent, faster round trips between Seattle and Portland. But the train was already running a few minutes late by the time they boarded.

At 7 a.m., Scott sent a live feed from inside the train as Rozier interviewed a carefree older gentleman named Rudi Wetzel. Wetzel told him how much he loved the train.

A few minutes later, Scott and Rozier disembarked at Tacoma.

• • •

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