They were both passionate transit advocates from Washington state who were celebrating Amtrak’s new route.
Zack Willhoite, 35, loved to collect memorabilia related to trains and buses, from the large to the small.
Willhoite, an information technology specialist with Pierce Transit in Tacoma, was passionate about driving alternatives.
Perhaps the most striking item in his collection was a full-size, operational city bus that he bought.
“He took people out for rides in it sometimes, including me,” said Mike Morrison, a rail enthusiast from Oregon who was Willhoite’s friend.
“It was an older model, one that had been retired.”
Not too long ago, Morrison said, Willhoite invited him to ride the bus around Tacoma with a few close friends, including fellow Washington train guru Jim Hamre.
On Tuesday, Morrison received a text message that said both Willhoite and Hamre were killed when Amtrak train 501 derailed south of Tacoma on Monday.
Willhoite and Hamre were close friends and both members of the volunteer rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington.
Many in the tight-knit rail advocacy community had feared the men had been injured or worse, after trying to reach them on their cellphones Monday and receiving no reply.
“He and Jim, being train advocates, wanted to be on board that first train,” Morrison said. “Their purpose was to celebrate the opening of the line.”
The name of a third person confirmed killed in the derailment has not yet been released.
Dozens more were injured when 12 passenger cars and an engine left the tracks, spilling onto Interstate 5.
Pierce Transit confirmed Whillhoite’s death in a press release.
“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,” the agency wrote. “He will be sincerely missed.”
Willhoite, friends said, was curious, easygoing and cheerful. He was an avid rail photographer.
Hamre, a retired Washington Department of Transportation worker, was considered a policy expert by his fellow rail enthusiasts, and served on the national board of the Rail Passengers Association
“He was always a go-to person when you wanted to find out what was going on,” said Dan McFarling with the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates.
“It’s going to be tough for them to find somebody to fill his shoes.”
McFarling said Hamre had advocated for the new Point Defiance Bypass route that Amtrak 501 was carrying passengers on for the first time when it derailed. He said Hamre believed that speeding up the trip between Portland and Seattle was critical to attracting more passengers.
For Morrison, the two men’s death is particularly painful because he believes a key safety improvement rail advocates have pushed for — positive train control — might have prevented the accident.
“The railroad hadn’t activated that, and that’s the kind of thing that prevents a train from exceeding the speed on a curve like that,” he said.
Morrison said he plans to honor Willhoite and Hamre by carrying on their work of advocating for passenger rail.
“That’s what Jim would be doing,” he said. “We have to carry on.”