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Lifelong rail, transit enthusiast killed in Washington train derailment

Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2017 @ 1:34 PM

Nearly a day after a catastrophic train derailment in Washington state, family, friends and colleagues are remembering a man who was a lifelong enthusiast of rails and public transit.

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Pierce County Transit officials identified Zack Willhoite, one of the company’s employees, as one of the three people killed when Amtrak Cascades train 501 went off an overpass and dangled above Interstate 5 in DuPont.

>> Photos: Amtrak train derails in Washington

“The entire Pierce Transit team was deeply saddened to learn that one of our employees was a victim of the Dec. 18 Amtrak train accident,” a statement from Pierce County officials said.

“IT Customer Service Support Specialist Zack Willhoite has been a Pierce Transit employee since 2008. 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.”

In a Facebook post sent to KIRO 7, friends and family said they searched for Willhoite for hours on Monday. The post said Willhoite was with his best friend on the inaugural run of train 501 Monday, which took place along a new bypass that was created by refurbishing freight tracks.

When the train went along a curve before the overpass -- hurtling 50 mph over the speed limit, according to the National Transportation Safety Board -- it jumped the tracks. The screech and clang of metal was followed by silence, then screams, as the injured cried out to rescuers and motorists who pulled over and rushed to help.

More than 70 people were injured, 10 of them seriously.

>> Related: What is Positive Train Control, and would it have prevented the Amtrak wreck?

Pierce Transit Advisory board member Chris Karnes wrote about the devastating crash that killed a “rail aficionado.”

Karnes sent a second tweet advocating for positive train control, which is a technology that can automatically slow or stop a speeding train. The control wasn’t in use on the stretch of track where the train derailed.