2 Rail Buffs Killed in Wash. Amtrak Wreck Couldn't Wait for Faster Trains - NBC Connecticut
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2 Rail Buffs Killed in Wash. Amtrak Wreck Couldn't Wait for Faster Trains

"Yesterday was a moment of great happiness for them, which makes this so heartbreaking," said a friend and fellow rail advocate

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Multiple Casualties in Washington State Derailment

    An Amtrak train with scores of people onboard derailed in Washington state on Dec. 18. (Published Monday, Dec. 18, 2017)

    It was a given that the two pals who loved trains and spent their lives advocating for better rail access would be there on that day in history.

    Jim Hamre, 61, and Zack Willhoite, 35, hopped on an Amtrak train together Monday, becoming some of the first passengers to take the maiden voyage of a faster route between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.

    The bosom buddies in their passion for public transportation who had excitedly awaited the day higher-speed trains could zip through their home turf. They were among the three killed when the train going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone derailed south of Seattle and toppled some cars on a highway below. Dozens of others were hurt, some seriously.

    The Pierce County coroner's office said Wednesday that both men died of severe brain and skull injuries from blunt impact on the train. Their deaths were ruled accidents.  

    Train Survivor: 'I Thought It Was A Bomb'

    [NATL] Train Survivor: 'I Thought It Was A Bomb'

    Rudy Wetzel, 81, describes digging himself out of the wreckage of Monday's deadly Amtrak crash, and his fear that the wreckage would catch fire while he was still inside.

    (Published Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017)

    Family and friends said Tuesday that they were devastated by the deaths, describing Hamre and Willhoite as devoted rail advocates who were loved by many. They were both knowledgeable about the technical aspects of trains and had spent their lives advocating for such a route.

    "Yesterday was a moment of great happiness for them, which makes this so heartbreaking," said Carl Fowler, a friend who has worked with Hamre and Willhoite in rail advocacy for years.

    He added: "Despite yesterday's tragedy, the Cascade corridor that they built will be their monument."

    Hamre came from a railroad family — his father worked for the Milwaukee Road line that ran from Chicago to Seattle, Fowler said. Hamre worked summers for the line between studies at Washington State University in the 1970s.

    He retired a few years ago after a career as a highway engineer at the Washington transportation department. Fowler and Hamre took extensive rail-centric vacation tours across the world.

    "He was the brother I never had. He could finish my sentences, my thoughts. But what I most admired about him was his kindness, his commitment, his extraordinary decency," an emotional Fowler said.

    Hamre and Willhoite also worked together as volunteers on the board of All Aboard Washington, a citizen rail advocacy group. Willhoite served as director of information technology, and Hamre was vice president and newsletter editor since 1988, writing enthusiastically in a recent online post about the new route that travels along refurbished freight tracks.

    The $180.7 million project was aimed at speeding up service by bypassing a route with a number of curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.

    "They were looking forward to it, of course. They were having the opportunity for the first official run of a brand new route," said Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington.

    Flem said he's known Hamre for more than three decades. Hamre, who lived with his mother in Puyallup, was a groomsman at Flem's wedding 25 years ago.

    Pierce Transit said Willhoite was a customer service support specialist who was admired by his colleagues.

    He was a funny, witty computer genius who helped analyze bus schedules and was committed to "balanced transportation," a European ethos of reducing reliance on personal vehicles, Fowler said.

    Crews Begin Recovery After Amtrak Derailment

    [NATL] Crews Begin Recovery After Amtrak Derailment

    Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Detective Ed Troyer says there are no rescue operations now, only recovery at the site of the Amtrak derailment in Washington State.

    (Published Monday, Dec. 18, 2017)

    Willhoite also enjoyed going to Star Wars conventions and renaissance fairs, Flem said.

    The men were members of the Rail Passengers Association, according to group president Jim Mathews, who called Hamre one of the most respected and effective rail advocates in the country.

    "Jim combined personability and kindness, and paired it with an intricate and detailed knowledge of transit policy and technical insight. This made him an extremely powerful advocate and an inspiration for others," the association said in a statement.

    Hamre's niece Rachel Topper said she has been notified of her uncle's death but that the family had no further comment. In a Facebook post, she said they were heartbroken.

    Willhoite's father-in-law, Thomas Tomblin, said his daughter was in a state of shock and grieving the sudden death of her husband. The couple got married in recent years.

    Tomblin said he was happy that his daughter had found Willhoite.

    Man Describes Rushing Into Amtrak Wreckage to Rescue Injured

    [NATL] 'People Were Pinned Underneath the Trains': Man Describes Rushing Into Amtrak Wreckage to Rescue Injured

    Dan Konzelman recounts the scene of a derailed Amtrak train to NBC affiliate KING-TV, telling the station what he found and how he and his girlfriend Alicia Hoverson helped rescue people at the scene before emergency services arrived.

    (Published Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017)

    "She's doing the best that can be expected," he said. "I'm just focusing on the things a dad has to take care of."

    Late Wednesday, authorities the third person killed in the deadly Amtrak derailment as a man under federal supervision for a child pornography conviction.

    The Pierce County coroner's office said Wednesday that Benjamin Gran, 40, of Auburn, Washington, died of multiple traumatic injuries in the train wreck Monday.

    Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle, said the prosecutor was notified Wednesday of Gran's death. Gran had been ordered to a lifetime of supervised release following a felony conviction for child pornography.

    Gran had pleaded guilty and served two years in prison before his release in 2015. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender.