GOP lawmakers describe terrifying scene at train crash

GOP lawmakers describe terrifying scene at train crash
© Twitter/Rep. Greg Walden

A train carrying Republican lawmakers to their annual retreat in West Virginia crashed with a garbage truck in a crossing grade on Wednesday, killing one person in the truck and leaving several members of Congress injured.

Lawmakers were shaken by the incident but no major injuries were reported on the train, which crashed in Crozet, Va., about 15 miles outside Charlottesville. 

Witnesses described a terrifying scene in the small rural town, as both lawmakers and first responders scrambled to save the seriously injured people on the tracks.

At least two others in the truck sustained injuries. The University of Virginia Medical Center said a total of five patients were transported to the hospital, including one in critical condition. 

Local and state police surrounded the Charlottesville train station and helicopters hovered overhead while lawmakers boarded buses to continue the journey to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

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Police conducted a thorough sweep of the train to make sure no lawmakers, family members or staff were left behind. Law enforcement officials do not suspect any foul play in the incident, although the FBI is monitoring the situation.

 

The GOP retreat will go on as planned, but the program has been adjusted to include a moment of prayer for those involved in the crash, as well as a security briefing from the Sergeant-at-Arms and United States Capitol Police.

“After consultation with leadership in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, the retreat will proceed with an adjusted program. Our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by today’s incident,” said a spokesperson for the Congressional Institute.

The three-day annual gathering at The Greenbrier resort kicked off Wednesday evening, with appearances from President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE, Vice President Pence and several Cabinet members slated throughout the week.

Trump spoke to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDuncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea Trump campaign steps up attacks on Biden Trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, and hardly a voice of caution to be heard MORE (R-Wis.) by phone about the crash, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. Ryan was on the train but was not injured, according to his office.

“There is one confirmed fatality and one serious injury. There are no serious injuries among members of Congress or their staff. Senior administration officials are in regular contact with Amtrak and state and local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has been affected by this incident,” Sanders said in a statement.

First responders arrived quickly on the scene to treat minor injuries on the train and more serious injuries on the ground, while some lawmakers with medical training rushed to get off the train and help provide medical assistance.

“They were actually the first person on the scene as far as I could tell. ... They were the first ones rendering assistance,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeTrump's border wall hangs over spending talks House, Senate reach deal on fiscal 2020 spending figures New hemp trade group presses lawmakers on immigration reform, regs MORE (R-Okla.) said of his colleagues who are physicians. “They were administering CPR to the folks who had been hurt in the crash.”  

Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinGOP lawmakers, Trump campaign rip 'liberal law professors' testifying in impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing Sunday shows - Democrats look forward on impeachment MORE (R-N.Y.) described a “hard” collision and said he was “thankful the train was able to stay on the tracks.” Many members acknowledged the incident could have been a lot worse if the train had derailed.

Some lawmakers on the train “hit the deck” upon impact, causing a “couple of bumps and bruises,” according to aides. 

Members said the impact was so severe that it tossed some passengers from their seats and sent stray objects flying through the compartment. Others had been standing around conversing with their colleagues when the train hit the truck, catching them off guard.

“It was quite a jolt. We had some water right in front of us, flying all over. It took me 10 minutes to find my phone, which was thrown somewhere,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.) said on CNN. “It was quite an impact.”

Rep. Jason LewisJason Mark LewisTwo swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports GOP Senate candidate said Republicans have 'dual loyalties' to Israel The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (R-Minn.), who was on the train, told Fox News that the impact “threw a lot of people’s heads into the seats ... people who were in the aisle fell down.”

Lewis was taken away from the crash on a stretcher and wearing a neck brace, according to one GOP lawmaker who witnessed the scene. 

He suffered a concussion but was discharged from the hospital and traveled on to the GOP retreat, where “he looks forward to participating in the retreat as much as he is able,” his staff said on Twitter.

Pictures of the wreckage showed a crumpled garbage truck lying on the ground near the train tracks with trash strewn about, while several lawmakers took to Twitter following the crash to let the public know they were safe.

Amtrak said in a statement that the chartered train departed Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning and later crashed into a vehicle on the tracks about 11:20 a.m. in Crozet.

The National Transportation Safety Board launched a go-team to investigate the incident and will provide updates when they are available.

Both House and Senate members were on the train, as well as some of their spouses, children and staff members, though it’s unclear how many people were on board. Zeldin said not everyone in the GOP conference was on the train, and several indicated on social media they took alternate transportation to the retreat.

Rep. Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterCongress can't even study gun violence unless it changes the law Judd Gregg: Pelosi's olive branch...sort of Lawmakers propose banning shark fin trade MORE (R-Fla.), whose wife was accompanying him on the trip, described the scene to The Hill.

“Big thud. I was in my seat and it whips you,” Webster said. “My wife looked out of the window and saw the front of a Mack truck and it just ripped the front off it.”

“The people standing got thrown. They called up all the doctors in the conference. Seven to eight doctors,” he added. “There were a few in our cabin who got thrown.”

There have been a string of high-profile crashes at crossing grades in recent years, including a 2015 incident in New York that killed five Metro-North passengers and the driver of an SUV that was stopped on the train tracks at the crossing.

Amtrak has also come under fire in recent years for its safety record, including a deadly train derailment in Washington state in December.

The Federal Railroad Administration has made improving the safety at crossing grades a top priority, including an ad campaign last year aimed at discouraging people from trying to speed across the tracks before a train passes.

Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonBicameral group of Democrats introduces bill to protect immigrant laborers Overnight Energy: Mark Ruffalo pushes Congress on 'forever chemicals' | Lawmakers spar over actor's testimony | House Dems unveil renewable energy tax plan | Funding for conservation program passes Senate hurdle Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman MORE (D-D.C.), ranking member on a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, called for a hearing on railroad safety following Wednesday’s train crash.

“As we await details from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, our committee needs to hold a hearing on rail safety nationwide,” Holmes Norton said. “We need to know whether more is needed to address rail safety now.”

Scott Wong and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report from Charlottesville. Cristina Marcos and Jordan Fabian also contributed.