This wasn’t the Amtrak crash DuPont expected. But city was braced for impact

DuPont residents gather Wednesday evening for a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims and those affected by Monday’s Amtrak derailment.
DuPont residents gather Wednesday evening for a candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims and those affected by Monday’s Amtrak derailment. City of DuPont

DuPont Mayor Mike Courts keeps a running to-do list on his office white board.

Listed at No. 16 for 2018: Disaster preparedness — meaning an earthquake. Or Mount Rainier spewing to life. Or a train crash.

On Monday, priority No. 16 became No. 1.

“I was on the way to work about 7:45 a.m., coming up Center Drive,” Courts recalled Wednesday.

Suddenly he saw an unmarked patrol car “just blow by me, with sirens and flashers, going about 70 mph on Center Drive,” he said. “I saw they were not in pursuit, so I assumed something bad had happened on I-5.”

It had. Minutes earlier, while making its inaugural run on a new route, Amtrak No. 501 had flown off the tracks at DuPont’s doorstep.

Courts was on his way to City Hall, which was closed Monday. City staff were getting emergency management training.

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DuPont Mayor Mike Courts in his office Wednesday. Courts and his staff helped coordinate the emergency response following Monday’s Amtrak derailment. Debbie Cockrell debbie.cockrell@thenewstribune.com

With training on his mind, Courts walked into the office of City Administrator Ted Danek.

“He gets up and says, ‘Train derailed,’ ” Courts recalled Wednesday.

“Is that the scenario for today’s exercise?” the mayor asked.

“No, the train derailed,” Danek answered.

“Cancel training,” Courts said. “We’re not training today. We’re doing today.”

Courts and Danek, both retired military, then braced themselves with the grim task of quickly organizing their staff and an instant triage scene at City Hall.

The mayor had worried about a train accident in the city long before this day. But those worries involved a train/vehicle collision, or pedestrian/train accident at a crossing.

He’d not imagined this scenario.

“This is not the accident all of us thought was going to happen,” he said later.

Speculation and blame, Courts said, were not top of mind at that point.

“I looked at the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) guy who was there for the training that day, and said, ‘You can help, but we really just have to get on with doing business.’

All police and fire responders for DuPont were activated.

Immediate concerns were for rescuing and aiding the train passengers or anyone hurt on Interstate 5 where some of the wreckage had landed. Anyone severely injured was taken directly to a medical facility.

DuPont’s chief of police became the incident commander until the Washington State Patrol could take over.

“We had volunteers, medical professionals coming in, people just stopping in,” Courts said. “So we sent them to the medical holding area to help.”

The City Council chambers were cleared to take in those affected and to be a center for emergency work.

“By 9 to 9:30 a.m.,” Courts said, “we became the reception area for lightly injured and uninjured, which we expected, and we ended up getting 21 people here.”

A senior paramedic from Joint Base Lewis-McChord served as on-scene triage coordinator.

“If you’re hurt go there; not hurt, go over there,” the major recalled the process.

By 10 a.m. operations were in full swing and Courts felt he could go to the crash scene and then to the command post.

“First responders had a job to do and that wasn’t to give me a tour,” he said, adding that he’d wanted them to focus on the victims.

“I’m amazed no one was killed in those automobiles. They were just crushed. It looked like a movie set with trains just tossed around.”

By the time Courts returned to City Hall, Gov. Jay Inslee and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier had arrived.

“They were here for about an hour, talked to victims, saw what was going on and we talked about our immediate needs,” Courts said.

One immediate challenge was to manage traffic.

“Of all places to close I-5, this is probably one of the worst,” Courts said. “There’s no bypass here. ... You’ve got Puget Sound, JBLM and the Nisqually River. This is a huge choke point and we know the JBLM corridor is already tight.”

The decision was quickly made to set up checkpoints and start stringent traffic control through the area to keep vehicles moving.

To get stranded rail passengers and others out of the area, Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation had buses headed north and south.

One person who needed a ride was a young man whose car was destroyed when a train car landed on it.

“He was from Auburn and his father was having a medical situation,” Court said, “so I sent one of our city employees with a vehicle to take him to Auburn.”

By 2 p.m., all the victims had been taken to their next destinations.

Meanwhile, dignitaries and representatives from other jurisdictions flooded City Hall with offers of assistance. Even the White House touched base.

“It was someone from the communications office, not one of the principals,” Courts said.

The person told Courts, “The president says whatever resources you need, call us.”

“I said, ‘That’s great, I appreciate that.” But, “I’ll probably start with my county executive, then go to my governor.”

China’s government checked to see whether any Chinese nationals were on board the train. The Korean consulate also asked about the passenger list.

In midafternoon, Courts declared a state of emergency for the city to enable setting up the traffic checkpoints and later to tap reserve funds if needed.

“We thought it would be important to express the emergency situation,” he said later.

Early on Courts told his executive assistant, “Pull out your Rolodex and start calling all our restaurants. We need food and water, so tell them just start bringing it.”

He needn’t have worried.

Steve Wazny, franchisee operator of the local Jack in the Box, offered free burgers, sandwiches and water to first responders.

That was just the beginning.

“Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, McNamara’s, Dupont General Store, they all started bringing stuff,” Courts said.

Members of the Church of Latter-day Saints in Lakewood showed up Monday night with meals for 200 people.

“They fed everyone working,” Courts said.

At pretty much all hours of the day, he heard from national media outlets, though interview requests slowed once the U.S. House passed the GOP tax plan.

By then the world spotlight was moving on.

“Paul Ryan started superceding me on TV,” Courts laughed later.

The mayor said he’s proud of how the city’s staff and first responders banded together to handle the emergency.

“The good news is our first responders all had been trained on dealing with a train derailment in the last couple of months,” Court said. “By all reports ... you had federal, state, county and municipal police and fire and it worked.”

He’s also thankful for the volunteers who did all manner of jobs, large and small, “just trying to keep some sense of order.”

After a week of late nights and early mornings, restoring a sense of order is the city’s priority. On Friday, Courts ended the state of emergency in the city.

At some point, the mayor said, he’ll start catching up with his other job — ski instructor at Snoqualmie where he gives lessons two days a week.

“My final week of preparation to get ready for that has kind of gone out the window,” he remarked, smiling.

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

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