"All I can say is the good Lord was with us. He gave us a good Christmas gift."
That comment from Morton Field, Elizabethtown, Ky., seemed to reflect the attitude of many passengers of the Amtrak train that derailed in a Colorado canyon late Christmas night. Many of the 294 people arrived in Salt Lake City on Monday night by bus and then continued on to their final destinations by bus, train and plane.Investigators, meanwhile, still are seeking the cause of the derailment that stranded 309 people for several hours in a snowy canyon but caused no injuries. Crews since have replaced the train on track.
"I'm not speculating on the cause," John Jacobsen, Amtrak director of public relations in Washington, said Monday. "We know the cars were forced off the track, but whether it was the track or the equipment or something else, we won't know for awhile."
For some, the derailment was an adventure. "It was really fun," passenger Preeti Shrikhande said. "We enjoyed it. Maybe others didn't, but we did. I guess maybe we were just full of the holiday spirit."
The Purdue University student, who was on her way to San Francisco, said she and a companion were watching a movie in a lounge car when the train derailed at 9:11 p.m. Sunday about 12 miles east of Glenwood Springs, Colo.
"The whole thing (train car) started to swing like crazy, she said. "People were falling all over us."
Two of three locomotives and 15 passenger cars of the California Zephyr derailed in heavy snow. The train, en route from Chicago to the West Coast, landed upright next to the tracks on the south side of the canyon, which rises above the Colorado River.
"A little bit more and we'd all have been swimming," said passenger Grant Collar, Little Rock, Ark.
Some of the passengers went into hysterics, but most people remained calm, Shrikhande said. "The car was quite stable. We were on firm ground."
"It was so fast, no one really knew what happened. And when the train stopped, it was all over," Field said.
The 294 passengers and 15 crew members were stranded on the train overnight but had heat and light, Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen said "the rails spread apart enough to cause the wheels to drop into a ridge between the rails." But he added, "I don't know whether there was a problem with the rail" or whether other factors, such as the train's weight, might have caused the rail to widen at the time of derailment.
He said the cars were kept upright when the wheels slipped between the rails. "The train couldn't move because it was locked into place by the rail," he said.
Passengers waited until about 3:30 a.m. before another train reached the accident site. Several cabooses helped transport the passengers to Glenwood Springs, Colo. Buses then took the passengers to Salt Lake City.
Tim Bishop of Colorado Springs said he and his two boys have had a "blast" during the past two days. "They've had the most exciting Christmas vacation," he said, referring to Brock, 9, and Brant, 11.
Bishop said his boys took their first airplane ride from Oklahoma to Colorado, then took their first train ride, rode a bus to Salt Lake City and will ride another train Tuesday to Seattle. "I told them we'd take a ferry in Seattle," he said.
Some of the passengers expressed frustration while stopping at the Salt Lake station. Officials had promised the passengers they would get them to their destinations by train or plane. But John Jacobsen, Amtrak director of public affairs, said it was unrealistic for everyone to expect Amtrak to be able to get plane rides for all of them. Many were forced to continue their journeys by bus because most plane and train flights are booked solid during this time of year, he said.
Officials from Amtrak, the Rio Grande and the National Transportation Safety Board examined evidence at the wreck site Monday. Rio Grande leases track to Amtrak for the California Zephyr.
Investigators will look into the equipment, the tracks, the speed of the train and the weather, among other factors, officials said.
"We also have to take up each car and take a look at the running gear to find a cause," said Tony Marzano, chief transportation officer for Rio Grande. He said track patrols examine the rail daily.
"From our perspective, in terms of an accident, it was comparatively minor," Jacobsen said. "It was mostly a major inconvenience to our passengers. We're very grateful and lucky we had no serious injuries."