Transportation systems in Washington State include road, air, rail, and maritime. Use of these systems and supporting transportation vehicles create the opportunity for accidents, emergencies, and disasters. Transportation hazards are natural or human caused.


Road: In 1996, two highway accidents were major emergencies. These accidents involved multiple car pileups that closed Interstate 5 (I-5) for hours; detoured traffic clogged other roadways, and overwhelmed local emergency response capabilities.

  • January 1996: A 19-car pileup occurred in Whatcom County, near Ferndale, that closed northbound Interstate 5 for four hours. No one was injured.
  • August 1996: A 42-car pileup occurred on Friday afternoon of Labor Day Weekend between Tacoma and Seattle on I-5. This accident closed southbound I-5 for four hours. Diverted traffic clogged most of the nearby highways and streets. The accident caused by rain, high speeds, and heavy traffic was responsible for 23 injuries and 1 death.

Air: Washington State has not experienced a major air accident, but the likelihood is increasing. A major air accident would almost certainly involve mass casualties. Several private plane crashes have resulted in injury and death.

Rail: Washington State experienced rail accidents in recent years.

  • November 1993: A head on collision of a Union Pacific train and a Burlington Northern train near Kelso killed five-railroad crew. The crash caused an explosion and a fireball was fueled by 10,000 gallons of diesel on the trains. The area is one of the busiest rail corridors in the United States with 60 trains using the two sets of track daily. Amtrak uses these tracks 2 to 3 times per day.
  • January 1997: A massive landslide in Snohomish County pushed five freight cars into Puget Sound and knocked out 100 yards of track. Amtrak and Burlington Northern use these tracks regularly.

Maritime: Washington State has not experienced a major accident involving a state ferry, but a series of incidents have occurred.

  • Ferries:
    • 1981: The Klahowya collided with a Liberian freighter in heavy fog in Elliot Bay causing minor damage.
    • 1986: A freighter failed to respond to numerous attempts at passing arrangements and the ferry Chelan was forced to stop to avoid collision.
    • 1986: The Hyak ran into a reef near the Anacortes ferry terminal, forcing the evacuation of 250 passengers.
    • 1987: An inbound freighter nearly collided with the ferry Walla Walla, leaving Seattle Pier 52. The ferry turned hard right to avoid a collision.
    • 1991: The ferries Sealth and Kitsap collided in heavy fog just north of Bremerton, injuring one woman.
    • 1994: The ferry Nisqually went aground on Elwha Rock off of Orcas Island.
    • 1994: The ferry Kitsap collided with a pleasure craft as it was proceeding to a Bremerton dock.
    • 1994: The ferry Elwha crashed into the Anacortes dock causing $500,000 in damages.
    • 1995: The ferry Nisqually lost power and rammed into the Lopez Island dock. Several passengers suffered minor injuries and the dock was seriously damaged.
    • 1996: The ferry Elwha nearly runs aground in the San Juan Islands when the skipper goes for an unauthorized, 15-mile detour.
    • 1999: The ferry Elwha crashed into the Orcas Island dock when the engines failed to reverse, causing $2.5 million in damages and disrupting vehicle traffic for days.
  • Other Vessels
    • A Canadian study examined past collisions, accidents, and groundings in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and found that 56% involved bulk carriers, 12% involved container vessels, 12% involved passenger vessels, and 18% involved tankers. Tankers are currently the most heavily regulated. Washington State's strict regulations on tanker vessels were passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
    • On February 12, 1997 a sailboat sent a mayday distress call near the entrance to La Push Harbor after its mast was tore off in a storm. A standard 44-foot Coast Guard rescue lifeboat responded in 20-foot seas. The boat capsized several times and righted itself, as designed. Three of the four-crew lifeboat members were drowned after leaving the boat. The fourth member remaining on board survived. The rescue boat is capable of operating in 30-foot seas.
    • The New Carrisa cargo ship ran aground near Coos Bay, Oregon on February 4, 1999 with 150,000 gallons of fuel on board. On February 10 the spill response team decided to burn the fuel. The operation was a partial success but split the stern from the bow. Crews managed to pump 100,000 gallons of fluids to tanks on shore but most of it was water. On March 8, 1999, a tug pulled the bow to sea and a Navy submarine sinks the bow with a torpedo on March 11. On October 5 the crew attempted to pull the stern to sea unsuccessfully. Concerns were that the ship or onboard fuels would drift toward the Washington coast and cause a hazardous materials incident.

Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Assessment

  • Road: Privately owned vehicles and buses provide transportation for individuals in Washington State using freeways, highways, and roads. Trucks and trailers carry interstate and intrastate cargo. Interstate pileups caused by fog, rain, high speeds, and heavy traffic are common on the west side of the Cascade Mountains.
  • Air: A major airline crash will create a mass casualty incident with hundreds of injuries or deaths. Hazardous materials incidents are created with fuel spills and dangerous cargo, such as chemicals in a crop duster or an airplane carrying fire retardant. The crash of a military aircraft with munitions or classified material requires the support of explosive ordinance disposal or military security. An airplane crash in a remote area of the state creates a search and rescue situation.
  • Rail: Major rail carriers in Washington State are Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific for freight, and Amtrak for passenger travel. North, south, east, and west travel is available. Other short haul carriers and local trains also exist. The greatest risk associated with freight trains is a spill of hazardous materials. An accident involving an Amtrak train traveling in Washington State could result in a mass casualty incident.
  • Maritime: The Washington State ferry system is the primary means of marine passenger transport. During 1995, 22 ferries made 71,435 round trips in state waters. In 1995, 1,256 different ships made 3,619 calls to Puget Sound ports either through the Straits of Juan de Fuca or the Straits of Georgia. The Puget Sound, navigable rivers, and Pacific Ocean make Washington State vulnerable to shipping and boating accidents as well as ferry accidents. Ferry accidents could result in a mass casualty incident.

The United States Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for safety and rescue on the open waterways. Major emergencies associated with freight vessels are more likely to result from spills or collisions with passenger vessels.


Washington State is vulnerable to all types of transportation emergencies. The two major effects of transportation accidents are human injury and hazardous materials releases. Mass casualty incidents can be difficult because of location. Remote locations have limited resources, make response time slow, and delay treatment of the injured. Heavily populated locations have crowd control problems and slow response time due to congestion. The worst type of accident would involve mass casualties and a hazardous material release. The presence of hazardous materials slows response to the injured for fear of exposing emergency personnel. Mass casualty events quickly overwhelm local emergency personnel, hospitals, and blood banks. Areas typically plan for these events with mutual aid agreements.

The source and location of transportation accidents vary but the response is typically the same. Response is focused on determining the presence of hazardous materials and then assisting the injured.




© Copyright 2014 Washington Military Department - Emergency Management Division