BY COL. NICOLE LUCAS
JBLM Garrison Commander
For months leading up to the anticipated runs of high-speed trains on tracks along Interstate 5 and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we stressed safety at nearby railroad crossings.
At the same time, agencies on and off-base got together to conduct joint emergency training, collaborating on many what-if scenarios. After all, JBLM and the surrounding communities were used to slow-moving freight trains on these tracks, not fast-moving passenger trains.
Come Dec. 18, we showed we were ready.
No one could have predicted the tragic accident that occurred at 7:34 a.m. that Monday morning, one week before Christmas, when Amtrak No. 501, on its way from Seattle to Portland, derailed south of I-5’s Mounts Road exit, killing three, injuring more than a hundred people and blocking I-5’s southbound lanes for three days.
When the first call came into JBLM from the Pierce County 911 Center, JBLM Fire and Emergency Services spearheaded a multijurisdictional response to the accident.
Tragic though it was, it’s not been lost on region officials how fortunate it was the accident occurred adjacent to JBLM, its first responders and other base resources. The fast response by JBLM Fire and Emergency Services’ firefighting and law enforcement professionals, as well as West Pierce Fire and Rescue and the Washington State Patrol — who arrived within minutes — saved lives.
Once on scene, JBLM Fire and Emergency Services provided initial command and control over a complicated and precarious crash site that blocked a major interstate during rush hour.
JBLM Fire and Emergency Services helped secure the crash site and organized rescue operations by military and civilian first responders. This force included all six JBLM engine crews, plus crews from DuPont, Lakewood and Lacey and support personnel from state and county agencies. Combined, these agencies ensured all fire hazards were eliminated.
They also ensured on-scene medical care was provided and dozens of moderately to seriously injured passengers were transported to local hospitals, including Madigan Army Medical Center.
Nineteen people were treated at Madigan, a Level II trauma center, the most of any of the local hospitals that cared for the people injured in the derailment.
ANSWERING THE CALL
There were many heroes that morning. Individual JBLM service members and civilian employees literally hopped out of their cars and trucks to help injured passengers who were either trapped in the wreckage or had been thrown from the train when it derailed. The professionalism and skill of these people was noticed both by local and national media outlets.
News coverage showcased how JBLM military and civilian employees were able to immediately and effectively respond to the derailment as it unfolded literally before their eyes. The quick-thinking action of these JBLM individuals was commendable.
JBLM’s ability to rapidly field such an initial response, then help lead a unified team of federal, state, county and city partners highlights another point. This capability doesn’t just happen.
It takes hard work made possible by individual and agency readiness maintained through frequent,
realistic training. Whether you’re a Soldier, Airman or civilian employee, your individual training regimen helps ensure JBLM has the highly-skilled people it needs to participate in large-scale disaster preparedness exercises, and likewise, to ensure we’re ready when tragedy
That point was never more apparent than on Dec. 18.
We take part in multijurisdictional training so we — and our state, county and city partners — can better understand one another’s strengths, capabilities and responsibilities before a crisis. This ensures we can effectively work together when — not if — a major accident or disaster occurs in this region.
JBLM responded remarkably well to this incident, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We could be called upon to respond again at any time. We must be ready.
The Dec. 18 reaction to Amtrak No. 501 is a testament to the skill and professionalism displayed by everyone who responded to this tragic accident.
While we wish this accident never happened, the collaborative response could not have been better. Well done!