Duo killed in Amtrak train derailment were longtime rail advocates eager for trip

Two longtime rail advocates who forged a friendship over a shared passion are among those killed in the Amtrak train derailment near DuPont.

Zack Willhoite, 35, and Jim Hamre, 61, were passengers on Amtrak 501’s first run on a new, faster route that was meant to shave 10 minutes off the ride from Seattle to Portland.

“It was just a given that they would be there,” Lloyd Flem, a colleague and friend to both men, told The New York Times. “They had wanted to be on that very, very first run.”

The duo were volunteers for All Aboard Washington, a rail enthusiast group.

Hamre retired a few years ago as a civil engineer at the state Department of Transportation. Willhoite had worked for Pierce Transit as a customer-service specialist since 2008.

Willhoite “has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency,” said the agency, which confirmed his death. “He will be sincerely missed.”

Train Derailment Victims
This undated photo provided by the Rail Passengers Association shows Jim Hamre. Hamre and fellow train enthusiast Zack Willhoite were among the victims of Monday’s deadly derailment outside Seattle. Rail Passengers Association The Associated Press

Hamre’s niece, Rachel Topper, confirmed her uncle’s death Tuesday. In a Facebook post, she said her family is heartbroken and that Hamre will be missed by many.

Hamre, who was not married, lived in Puyallup with his 89-year-old mother.

The Rail Passengers Association, of which Hamre was vice president, also confirmed he was among the victims.

Train Derailment Victims (2)
This 2012 photo provided by Pierce Transit shows Zack Willhoite. Willhoite and fellow train enthusiast Jim Hamre were among the victims of Monday’s deadly derailment outside Seattle. Pierce Transit The Associated Press

“Jim was among the country’s most-respected and effective rail advocates and a good friend and mentor to me,” Jim Mathews, association’s president, told The Seattle Times. “I will miss his counsel and our community is poorer for his loss.”

Friends described Willhoite, who was married, as a train aficionado who loved comic books and occasionally wrote articles for Mass Transit Magazine.

Chris Karnes, chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board, said Willhoite’s death was heartbreaking.

“He helped out advisory committee with IT issues, and behind the scenes he was a writer and advocate for better transit for all,” said Karnes, who was aboard the derailed train.

The men were among at least three people killed when the train hurtled off the tracks above Interstate 5 on Monday, sending 13 of 14 cars tumbling on top of each other onto the freeway below.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has not released the name of the third passenger killed.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653