Rail enthusiasts killed in Amtrak derailment were excited for ride

SEATTLE -- Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre were just the type of guys to hop on an Amtrak train hurtling passengers at faster speeds along newly upgraded tracks for the first time, friends and family said Tuesday.

Willhoite, 35, and Hamre, 61, were both rail enthusiasts and knowledgeable about the technical aspects of trains. They were among the three killed Monday when the train going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone plunged off an overpass outside Tacoma and toppled some cars on a highway below.

"It's pretty devastating. We're having a tough time," said Lloyd Flem, executive director of rail advocacy organization All Aboard Washington.

Willhoite and Hamre were active in such groups. In All Aboard Washington, Willhoite served as director of information technology, and Hamre was vice president and newsletter editor since 1988, writing enthusiastically in a recent online post about the new route that travels along refurbished freight tracks.

"They were looking forward to it, of course. They were having the opportunity for the first official run, of a brand new route," Flem said.

The 15-mile, $180.7 million project was aimed at speeding up service by bypassing a route with a number of curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.

Flem said he has known Hamre for more than three decades. Hamre retired a few years ago as a civil engineer at the Washington transportation department and was a groomsman at Flem's wedding 25 years ago. He lived with his mother in Puyallup, Flem said.

Pierce Transit said Willhoite was a customer service support specialist who was admired by his colleagues. He enjoyed going to Star Wars conventions and renaissance fairs, Flem said.

The men also were members of the Rail Passengers Association, according to group president Jim Mathews, who called Hamre one of the most respected and effective rail advocates in the country.

"Jim combined personability and kindness, and paired it with an intricate and detailed knowledge of transit policy and technical insight. This made him an extremely powerful advocate and an inspiration for others," the association said in a statement.

Hamre's niece Rachel Topper said she has been notified of her uncle's death but that the family had no further comment. In a Facebook post, she said they were heartbroken and that Hamre will be missed by many.