Daniel Konzelman remembers Dec. 18, 2017 as a day that changed his life.
It was the day an Amtrak passenger train derailed on its maiden voyage along the Point Defiance bypass near DuPont, spilling 10 rail cars onto Interstate 5, killing three people and injuring dozens more.
It was the day the world turned its attention on the city of DuPont, garnering a response from President Trump, who tweeted that the crash showed “more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” as reported in a Dec. 18 article by The News Tribune.
And it was the day 25-year-old Konzelman, who was on his way to work, ran toward a scene of destruction rather than away, saying he felt a “pull on his heart” to help the injured trapped inside. He ended up pulling more than a dozen people out of the wreckage and stayed with those he was unable to move, holding their hands as they waited for paramedics.
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“That (day) was a huge turning point in my life … I felt like it was an arrow pointing me in the direction where I want to go,” Konzelman said.
The target was becoming a first responder himself — a firefighter. It was something he hadn’t considered before the train accident, but the signs had always been there.
The pull to help others
Konzelman was born and raised in Puyallup, growing alongside four brothers and one sister. Konzelman and his brothers were all Boy Scouts who earned their Eagle Scout ranks.
Konzelman was home-schooled and attended a program called Academy Northwest but also ran track and cross-country at Puyallup High School. He participated in running start at Pierce College his senior year.
Growing up, he jumped to help those who needed it. On more than one occasion, he responded to car crashes on the road outside his home in Puyallup.
“I think just the way that I’m wired, if I see something that needs to be done and I don’t see somebody doing it immediately or doing it well, I just tend to jump in and do it,” he said.
When it came to finding a lasting career, he didn’t plan on becoming a first responder — he was going to become an accountant.
Konzelman graduated from Northwest University in 2017 with his bachelor’s degree in finance and again in 2018 with his master’s in business management. He got a job working in accounting while going to school.
After the derailment, all that changed.
“I wanted to do something that helped people, that made a difference,” he said. “Firefighter kept coming up at the top of the list. I said, ‘You know what — why not at least give it a try?’”
He started working part time, which allowed him to land a volunteer firefighter position with the Buckley Fire Department. He’s currently working through EMT school and will start fire academy in January. By June, he’ll graduate and be eligible to go on calls. He hopes to land a paid position soon.
Konzelman was recognized numerous times for his actions and received that National Boy Scouts of America North Star Award for bravery and distinguished service. He now serves as a member of the board for the BSA Pacific Harbors Council.
The day of the train crash put Konzelman in the right place at the right time to help where he could.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve personally found my calling,” Konzelman said. “And that was sort of the awakening in my life where I found where I discovered what I was meant to do.”
Finding his calling
The Monday morning of Dec. 18, 2017 started out normally enough. Konzelman, 24 at the time, left for his accounting job in Olympia, traveling southbound on I-5 as usual.
It was dark and foggy, and as he neared DuPont, a train pulled alongside the highway.
“I was pretty familiar with those train tracks,” Konzelman said as he recounted that day to reporters at his home in Puyallup last week. “They’d been closed, and I’d never seen a train going. So I saw the train going right parallel with us, and I thought that’s kind of weird. I’ve never seen a train on those tracks.”
That’s not all he noticed. Konzelman, who was commuting to work with his girlfriend at the time, thought the train was going really fast.
Shortly after the train passed, Konzelman hit a wall of traffic on I-5. He pulled onto the shoulder to exit the highway. That’s when he saw part of the train lying on the embankment.
“I was like, something tells me that’s not supposed to be there … I thought, ‘I think the train derailed,’” Konzelman said.
After exiting the freeway that morning, Konzelman drove up onto the bluff overlooking the train tracks. From there, he saw the wreck in its entirety.
“I remember looking over the handrail of the bridge and there was — I’d never seen a deceased person — and there was someone who had been thrown from the train. And that’s when I sort of realized the gravity of the situation, like there are probably fatalities in the train,” Konzelman said.
Konzelman didn’t hear any sirens or see anyone administering aid. He went to the train cars as fast as he could at that point, acting on the instincts he’d learned in his years in Boy Scouts, where he earned his Eagle Scout ranking.
Inside the train cars, he helped evacuate those he could. Some had neck or back injuries and couldn’t be moved. For them, he communicated their whereabouts and injuries to first responders, who were starting to arrive.
“One of the trains had blown open, and a lot of people were pinned, so when we got with that train I stayed with the people, and that’s where all the fatalities were, too,” Konzelman said.
“It was a really special moment to get to share with those people — a life-changing experience in both of our lives.”
Konzelman sent a picture of the crash to his family members, asking them to pray for everyone involved. His faith was with him throughout the worst of it, he said.
“I went into it knowing my family was praying for me and that if I did die, I know where I’m going. I just felt the courage and assurance that I was doing the right thing,” he said.
A friend of Konzelman’s saw his face on the news. He texted Konzelman with a picture of his uncle, Jim Hamre, who was riding the train that morning.
“He said, ‘Hey, have you seen Jim?’ And I had seen him,” Konzelman said.
Hamre was one of the passengers who died in the crash. His was the first body Konzelman saw when he looked over the handrail of the bridge. Hamre, 61, was a train enthusiast riding the train with Zack Willhoite, another rail advocate who also died in the crash, reported The News Tribune’s Stacia Glenn.
“All of a sudden a flood of emotion came in when I realized every single victim on that train was a father or an uncle or a son or a daughter,” Konzelman said. “At that point, I had so much overwhelming love for those people.”
Konzelman attended Hamre’s funeral and still keeps in touch with Hamre’s nephew. Konzelman also was thanked for his help by the family of Timmy Brodigan, a 17-year-old who had broken his neck in the crash. Konzelman continues to follow Brodigan’s journey of recovery, which took him to Colorado for treatment, as reported by KOMO News on April 26, 2018.
After the crash, details rolled in on what had happened. Speed appeared to be a factor in the crash, according to preliminary reports that cited the train was traveling at 78 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone at the time of derailment. About six seconds prior to derailment, an engineer commented on the speed.
A mandated train control system that might have prevented the crash was not operational at the time. The deadline to install it is Dec. 31, 2018.
The incident remains under federal investigation, which could take up to two years.