The train left Seattle for Los Angeles on Sunday but hit a fallen tree Sunday night in the mountains outside Oakridge, Oregon. The 183 passengers were stuck for 36 hours before the train got moving again Tuesday morning. People banded together to help each other while they were stranded, passengers said.
They were longing for hot showers, their own beds and diapers, not napkins, for their babies.
By the time the 183 passengers aboard the Amtrak Coast Starlight were freed from their snowbound ordeal on Tuesday, more than a day and a half had passed since their departure from Seattle for Los Angeles. The train was passing through a remote, snowed-in area 40 miles southeast of Eugene when it struck a tree on Sunday evening, leaving riders stranded.
“People were being very kind to each other, being friends. It restores your faith,” said passenger Tracy Rhodes.
Tuesday morning, it began its stop-and-go journey north to return passengers to where they started their journeys.
The train arrived in Eugene around noon Tuesday, where riders were greeted by Red Cross workers as well as food, coffee, water and doughnuts, said Amtrak spokeswoman Olivia Irvin. Some passengers waved their arms in jubilation, even though Eugene itself was snowed in, and riders weren’t able to connect with buses or other public transportation, Irvin said.
The train was serviced there before continuing on its northern trek. Even then, its troubles weren’t over. When the train reached Portland, riders were told there would be further delays returning to Seattle because of an earlier fire on a bridge over the Columbia River.
The train departed Portland around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and was expected to reach Seattle later that night, Irvin said.
Amtrak has not said when the Coast Starlight will resume its planned trip to California. Trains between Portland and Eugene are suspended until Friday due to weather-related track closures.
The double-decker train left Seattle early Sunday and struck the tree that evening. The train had been traveling on a portion of the Seattle-to-LA route that veers east, away from the Interstate 5 corridor and into the Cascade Mountains.
“It was surreal,” said Klamath Community College teacher Rebekah Dodson, who boarded the train in Albany, north of Eugene, had expected to be in Klamath Falls by Sunday night.
Passengers, along with the crew of 13, banded together throughout the ordeal. With cellphone service limited, younger passengers helped older ones reach their families to let them know they were all right, said Rhodes, of Scottsdale, Arizona. Rhodes added that a “mom brigade” was formed to care for and entertain the children.
Passenger Carly Bigby, a teacher from Klamath Falls who’d been visiting Eugene, told Portland’s KOIN-TV on Tuesday morning that parents had run out of diapers, and a worker in the cafe improvised with napkins and safety pins.
Dodson said friendships were formed, romances may have bloomed and passengers had heat, power, phones and laptops on the train, but still, “it was weird to be stuck in a place for so many days and not be able to leave, go outside and get fresh air.”
Dodson said a friend was planning to pick her up in Eugene, but it would be a few days because the roads between there and her Southern Oregon home remain closed.
“I’m worried about my job, but once we get to Eugene, it will be OK,” she said.
At about 6:20 p.m. Sunday, the train “came to a sudden halt and the conductor said that they had some damage from some low-hanging limbs because of the sudden snowstorm and they were going to stop and fix it,” Dodson said.
Rhodes said she was told the engine hit several snow-laden trees and that one snapped back, damaging a hose assembly providing air pressure for the brakes.
The train was repaired enough to reach Oakridge, a nearby town 1,200 feet high in the Cascade Range whose 3,200 inhabitants were dealing with their own problems — a blackout and snow- and debris-covered roads. Officials decided it was better to keep passengers on the train than to let them scatter in the unlit rural area.
“We made every decision in the best interest of the safety of our customers during the unfortunate sequence of events,” Amtrak Executive Vice President Scot Naparstek said.
By Monday, more than a foot of snow had fallen in the area.
The hours ticked by. Some passengers grew impatient.
“This is hell and it’s getting worse,” Dodson posted on Facebook after 30 hours.
The train had heat, electricity and functioning toilets, Naparstek said. He said Amtrak will contact customers “to provide refunds and other compensation as appropriate.”
Amtrak said there was enough food on the train for the passengers, and that passengers were not being charged for food and water, contrary to some social-media chatter.
“Yesterday morning, they opened up the diner car for us, so we were all fed breakfast, lunch and dinner, rationed out,” passenger Sam Salerno of Monterey, California, told KOIN-TV. “All in all, we weren’t too worried. There were always jokes about not having enough food, but there was enough food.”
Rhodes tweeted: “The food hoarding has begun. I’m considering saving half my dinner steak and making jerky on the room heater.” But, she said, “We were fed very well. Steak at night, hot breakfast in the morning.” Coach passengers were given beef stew with mashed potatoes, she noted.
Passenger Marsha Trujillo had praise for the train crew, calling them “so professional and so kind.”
“We really wanted for nothing, except for maybe someplace comfortable to lie down,” Trujillo told KOIN-TV. “And a shower.”
Rhodes had been traveling with her brother to visit their 82-year-old mother in Klamath Falls, but with the highway impassable, she now plans to fly home to Arizona.
“She is definitely disappointed, but is glad we’re safe,” she said.
The Coast Starlight bills itself on the Amtrak website as “a grand West Coast train adventure.”
“Break free of congested airports and freeways to get up-close-and-personal with America’s spectacular West Coast. Hug rocky coastlines, glide beside the majestic Cascade Mountains,” the site says.
In this case, however, nature trumped modern human conveyances.
After the train began moving again Tuesday, Dodson posted a video on Facebook admiring the view.
“We are moving and it’s totally awesome,” she said as trees laden with snow swept past a window. “Isn’t it beautiful? I’m so excited.”