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Amtrak derailment: Two 'passionate advocates' of rail travel among the dead in crash

Two devoted rail enthusiasts were among the three people killed in the Amtrak derailment outside Tacoma, Washington.
Image: Zack Willhoite, who died in Monday's Amtrak derailment outside Seattle, Washington.
Zack Willhoite, who died in Monday's Amtrak derailment outside Seattle, Washington.via Facebook

Two devoted rail enthusiasts were among the three people killed in the Amtrak derailment outside Tacoma, Washington, on Monday.

Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, both "passionate advocates for passenger railroad," died in the derailment, said Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, an organization that aims to improve and expand rail transit. Hamre was a board member for the association and Wilhoite was a member, the group said in a statement.

"Jim was among the country's most-respected and effective rail advocates and a good friend and mentor to me. I will miss his counsel, and our community is poorer for his loss," Mathews said in the statement. "Both Jim and Zack have been advocates of transit and passenger rail for decades, and we can’t thank them enough for their work."

Jim Hamre, a board member of the Rail Passengers Association, died during the Amtrak derailment outside Seattle, Washington on Dec. 18, 2017.via Facebook

The two were traveling on Amtrak Train 501 on Monday for its inaugural ride on a highly touted new route, which promised faster service between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.

Federal investigators say the train was traveling at 80 mph on a 30-mph stretch of track when it went careening off a bridge, sending train cars onto the highway underneath. It's not yet clear why the train was speeding.

A friend of the two victims described them as longtime pals who cared deeply about public transportation.

"Zack was the kindest, smartest, most decent guy, and even more an extraordinarily insightful friend. Jim Hamre was quite simply the brother I never had, my best friend and a far better person than me," Carl Fowler wrote on Facebook.

Willhoite was an IT customer service support specialist with Pierce Transit, the public transportation agency in Pierce County, which encompasses Tacoma. He had been employed there since 2008, the agency said in a statement.

Zack Willhoite, who died in Monday's Amtrak derailment outside Tacoma, Washington.via Facebook

"He has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency. He will be sincerely missed. Our thoughts are with Zack’s family, as well as the families of the other victims, during this very difficult time," the statement said.

Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, a rail advocacy organization in Washington, said Willhoite and Hamre were also members of his group. Flem said that Hamre was a civil engineer who served as the organization’s vice president and the editor of the newsletter.

“Both men were extraordinarily valuable to our group. They will be difficult to replace, to say the least, and they were also good friends,” Flem told NBC News.

Related: NTSB searches for cause of deadly Amtrak accident

Dozens of others — including other rail enthusiasts who simply wanted to be among the first to ride the new route — were injured.

Charlie Heebner, 79, and his wife, Beverly, 78, of Olympia, Washington, were eager to try out the new rail line, which promised faster service between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.

"We just wanted to go, an opportunity to be the first to go on this newly established section of track that hasn't had passenger trains on it in years," Heebner told NBC affiliate KING 5 in Seattle from the hospital where both he and his wife were taken with non-life-threatening injuries.

The couple was enjoying the ride when suddenly, the train derailed.

"A lot of tossing and squealing and rattling," Heebner said. "It kind of got dark, and I ended up on the floor."

According to National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr, Train 501 was carrying 80 passengers, three crew and two service personnel. It's unclear whether the third victim was a passenger or a crew member.


Del DeSart, right, pictured with his wife, Meagan DeSart, was on the Amtrak train that derailed on Monday.Courtesy of Meagan DeSart

Del DeSart, 38, of Astoria, Ore., was on the train back home after going to a Seattle Seahawks game. A season ticketholder, DeSart usually drives up to the games, but decided to save money on gas and take the train this time to "just relax," his wife, Meagan DeSart, told NBC News.

Meagan heard about the train crash on Monday morning but couldn't get a hold of her husband for more than half an hour and didn't know whether he had survived.

"It was horrifying," she said. "It felt like an eternity."

Related: 'Positive Train Control' ordered by Congress, but not yet in place

Once she reached him, she left their three kids, ages 3, 11, and 16, with family, and met him at the hospital in Tacoma where he was taken.

"We're still not quite sure the gravity of everything that's going on medically," Meagan said. "He has broken bones, and he's not paralyzed, and we're thankful for that."

She declined to give more information about his condition in light of potential legal action she was considering.

"He's hanging in there," she said.

Another passenger, Rudy Wetzel, 81, injured his back in the derailment. He told KING he was asleep when it happened.

"I opened up my eyes and I saw the car was falling," he said from his hospital bed. "Next thing you know, part of my body was underneath the car."

As for why he survived, Wetzel said: "I'm a very lucky person."