NILES, Mich. – The chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, Mike Flanigon, says it could be six months to a year before they know conclusively what caused Sunday morning's derailment of an Amtrak train in Niles.
At a news conference this morning in South Bend, Flanigon indicated that there are measurements to take, interviews to conduct and electronic data that needs to be analyzed before a determination can be made as to the cause of the derailment.
The derailment happened shortly before 10:30 a.m. Sunday a half-mile north of the Jerry Tyler Memorial Airport at the intersection of Terminal Rd. and Renaissance Dr.
174 people, passengers and crew were onboard the Amtrak train. They boarded in Chicago at 7:20 a.m. CST headed towards Kalamazoo.
“We were moving along and all of sudden we started jerking and I thought at first it was just changing tracks, then all of a sudden it really started rocking,” passenger Ann Frising told WSBT. “I'm think Oh no, oh no the train is going to tip.”
She said it was something like you would see in a movie, as the train left the tracks with items flying around the passenger car and a sense of terror, not knowing what was going to happen next.
“Suitcases and everything was getting tossed around and then everybody was running about and my sister was in the train car ahead and she was hurt.”
WSBT was told on the scene none of the passengers hurt suffered life-threatening injuries. They were taken to Lakeland Hospital in Niles, Lee Memorial in Dowagiac and South Bend's Memorial Hospital for treatment.
Seven different ambulance services were called to the scene. In all, 10 people were injured.
The Amtrak train had four cars and two engines.
Emergency crews cleared the scene at 12:35 p.m.
So what caused the derailment?
Flanigon says it is still under investigation, but several passengers seem to think they know exactly what the problem was.
"Looking at where we stopped, it was probably only about 15 feet from the freight cars that were dead stopped on the track,” said Gerry Loveless, who was riding all the way to Canada. “So it looked like we went off the wrong switch onto that track rather than the one we were supposed to be on. It could have been much worse. If we'd have hit those stopped train cars, it would have been disastrous. We're happy to be okay."
Lisa Hahn of Mattawan, Michigan, concurs.
"When we got out, we were 20 feet from a freight train. We were on the wrong track. We were 20 feet from hitting it. It was quite shocking. I am thankful we are okay and thankful we didn't hit that other freight train or it would have been much worse. I don't know how we got on those tracks. I felt like they should be blocked off better, but we clearly missed the transfer tracks."
Amtrak spokesman, Marc Magliari, says it's too early to speculate about the cause of the crash. He says it remains under investigation. When asked about the stopped cars on the tracks that were just feet from where the train derailed, Magliari said, "That's one of the things we'll be looking at."
Magliari says the train had an event recorder on board, so investigators will use that as they make a determination on the cause of the derailment. The Federal Railroad Administration will also be called in on the case.
Meantime, Niles school buses were used to transport uninjured passengers from the derailment site to the Amtrak depot in Niles. The Salvation Army was on hand there to set up its mobile disaster unit to serve food and drink to the displaced Amtrak riders.
"That's what we're here to provide, nourishment to folks before they grab a bus to get back to where they're going," said Major William Walters of the Salvation Army of Niles.
Canadian Amtrak passenger, Dawn McGregor of Ontario, was so appreciative she made a donation to the Salvation Army on the spot as she got a cup of coffee.
Once the first charter bus arrived to take passengers to the Amtrak station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they could catch other trains, passengers with babies were allowed to board first.
But some riders expressed concern about the idea of having to ultimately board another train, after having just experienced a derailment.
Twelve-year-old Jack Hannigan of Canada said, "That was like my second time on a train and you don't want to have another crash, like two in one day."
Bethany Geb of Allen Park, Michigan said, "They're taking us on these buses to Kalamazoo and then they're taking us on different trains, which is kind of creepy. Another train, we don't like trains."
An unidentified passenger from Dearborn, Michigan, who was traveling in a wheelchair said," I just don't want to get on another train. It's kind of scary. I'm not going to lie."
Many of the passengers were vocal about their belief that Amtrak should compensate them for what they went through.
Magliari is encouraging those people to contact Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL or to go online at amtrak.com and open a customer service claim.