The last time Everett’s Mark Garcia saw his friends Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, both train buffs killed in Monday’s Amtrak derailment, they were all together on a bus tour to see Christmas lights in Seattle.
That was the evening of Dec. 9. The three friends boarded a vintage bus for the annual “Santa’s Lights Tour,” an excursion sponsored by the nonprofit Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association.
“There were Seafair Pirates and Santa Claus. It was a three-hour bus ride,” said Garcia, recalling the fun of that final trip with two good friends. For years, the men’s shared interest in rail and transit heritage brought them together — often on train trips.
Garcia, 64, is such a rail enthusiast that when news of Monday’s horrific accident was first reported, friends contacted him on Facebook. Many times, he has boarded trains making inaugural trips. His friends thought he might be aboard Amtrak Train 501 on Monday.
“Just want to let everyone know,” Garcia posted on Facebook just after 11 a.m. Monday. “I wasn’t on that train that derailed south of Tacoma this morning! Thank you for your concerns!”
“So glad to hear this,” Margaret Riddle, retired as a history specialist at the Everett Public Library, replied via Facebook. And the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, pastor at Everett’s Trinity Episcopal Church where Garcia worships, posted “I was wondering, so I’m grateful for your update.”
The Amtrak Cascades train was on its first regular trip from Seattle to Portland using the new Point Defiance Bypass route. Going about 80 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, it derailed and crashed onto I-5 near DuPont in Pierce County.
Garcia said he could easily have been aboard for Monday’s trip, as a first on a new route. But he was dissuaded by the train’s 6 a.m. departure from Seattle, and the need to be up by 4 a.m.
Retired highway engineer Hamre, 61, and 35-year-old Willhoite, who worked in customer service for Pierce Transit, were among three men killed and dozens of people injured in the disaster.
Garcia got to know Hamre, and later Willhoite, years ago through a rail passengers group. Both Pierce County men were board members with All Aboard Washington, an advocacy group that promotes rail travel.
Hamre and Willhoite, Garcia said, were with him on Nov. 12, 2002, a red-letter day for rail service in Everett. It was the first full day of Amtrak service through what was then the new Everett Station, which opened Feb. 4, 2002.
“I rode to Everett on Amtrak with Jim and Zack,” Garcia said. He remembers being the first one of them off the train in Everett — “because I was the Everett man” — after riding north from Seattle. The Empire Builder travels from Seattle to Chicago.
That day, the three friends were joined on the train by local officials and even Elvis impersonator Tracy Alan Moore, according to Herald archives.
Hamre and Willhoite later came to Everett to ride Sound Transit’s first Sounder train carrying Seahawks fans on a game day, Garcia said.
On a more recent trip, Garcia was in San Francisco with Hamre and Willhoite in 2015 for that city’s Muni Heritage Weekend. The San Francisco Railway Museum rolls out its vintage vehicles, including streetcars and cable cars, during that annual event. “Jim and Zack had dinner with me at Fisherman’s Wharf,” Garcia said.
A 1972 graduate of Everett High School, Garcia said his passion for trains stretches back to childhood. His grandfather took him to Mukilteo to see and hear trains go by, and to Everett’s old Bond Street depot.
“It was sad,” Garcia said of this week’s tragedy, but the derailment hasn’t changed his mind about rail travel. “It’s a viable form of transportation,” he said.
At Everett Station, Garcia watched the Amtrak Cascades train pull out Thursday morning on its way to Vancouver, B.C., with stops in Stanwood, Mount Vernon and Bellingham. With Christmas almost here, there were lots of passengers aboard.
Garcia wasn’t getting on that train, but said “I wouldn’t hesitate to — not at all.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@herald net.com.