Dan McFarling, 70, was excited. He woke up at 4:15 am., and by 6 a.m. he was at Portland’s Union Station with a therapy dog, Parker, ready to educate people about the benefits of rail travel – a passion for more than half his life.
And he was there to celebrate, as the first train of a new route between Seattle and Portland was scheduled to arrive later in the morning.
The station was crowded with people going north, he said, so it was easy to find people to talk to. To one stranger in particular, he recalled, he talked about rail safety and how much safer Europe’s rail systems are.
McFarling moved on to talk to others ready to board. Then that stranger came back and showed him a picture of a train derailment in Washington.
The Portland-bound Amtrak train had derailed just before 8 a.m., careening from a bridge onto a crowded Interstate 5 below and killing at least six people. Carrying 83 people and the crew, it hit something on the track about 40 miles south of Seattle, an official said, sending 50 people to the hospital.
“At first it was disbelief. It was a shock,” McFarling said as his voice broke and he started to choke up. “It immediately made me realize our role today would be different that what we had planned.”
McFarling is a longtime member of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, a group that since the 1970s has been pushing for expanded rail services. He was one of about seven people with the association who had planned to be at the station Monday to greet the train and help educate people about rail travel.
About 11 a.m., McFarling and fellow association member Donald Leap, 69, were waiting to hear news about someone they knew.
“I tried to call Jim,” but he didn’t answer, Leap said to McFarling.
“I’m afraid that Jim was probably on that train,” McFarling said, and sighed.
The men were referring to Jim Hamre of All Aboard Washington, a sister organization.
McFarling and Parker weren’t the only ones at the station ready to offer support. The Red Cross had mobilized, according to a spokeswoman at the station, and two volunteer counselors were in a room on the second floor, ready to talk to anyone who needed help.
In the middle of Union Station, Amira Gad, 30, stood holding her three-year-old son near a model train display, as her husband came up pushing two hip-high suitcases. Their seven-year-old daughter moved around the display, following the train as it made its way through the little landscape.
That family’s first train ride in the United States was supposed to be about noon, Portland to Seattle. They had just learned their train was canceled and they would have to take a train about 3 p.m.
“Actually, I’m scared,” Gad said, as she processed what little she knew about the accident. “I don’t know, is it safe?”
The young family, originally from Egypt, moved to Portland six months ago from Dubai. Their plan was to go to Seattle for a few nights to see the city.
The younger child was very excited about the train ride, dad Ali Gad, 32, said.
“He loves trains,” Gad said. “Thomas the engine.”
The curly-haired boy, still in his mother’s arms, smiled and nodded.