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Love of trains put these victims on Amtrak 501

Two friends who shared a lifelong love of trains, Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, had looked forward to the inaugural run of Amtrak 501 from Seattle to Portland.

Friends who knew them said it was a given they would’ve been on this initial trip, likely in a front car as the train followed a brand-new route south of Tacoma.

Willhoite and Hamre were killed when the train derailed Monday near Dupont, Washington. A third man, Benjamin Gran, also died, and dozens of people were injured, including some in vehicles struck when train cars hurtled onto Interstate 5. Federal investigators say they haven't determined a cause of the derailment, but they revealed that the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone.

“My heart is broken,” wrote Allissa Clark in a Twitter post, who knew the men through the transit enthusiast community. “I send a salute to these two. Zack and Jim will be greatly missed.”

For Hamre, family came first, with trains a close second, according to his sister, Mary Ann Kellogg of Graham.

"Whenever he went on vacation somewhere he always made sure part of the trip included a section where they would ride the rails," Kellogg said.

Hamre, 61, lived in Puyallup and didn’t have children himself, she said.

“He had six nieces and nephews who were the light of his life,” she said. “He would take them to the Mariners games and the Star Wars movies.”

Kellogg said her brother came by his love of trains through his parents, who met in Montana while working railroad jobs.

Hamre was a Washington State University graduate in civil engineering and went to work for WSDOT out of college, she said.

Kellogg said most of their family lives around Puyallup. And a highlight of their year was trek up to mountains together for Christmas trees.

"We would make a day of it. Bring food, roast hot dogs," she said. "And he always had the biggest tree."

And he’d decorate to the nines, in the home Hamre shared with their mother.

Kellogg said the family would miss him, the guy who could be counted on for a ride to the airport or help when you were in trouble.

"We’re not even thinking about the holidays," his sister said. "It won’t be the same, that’s for sure."

Lloyd Flem, executive director of the rail advocacy organization All Aboard Washington, said Hamre was a vital member of his group.

Hamre also was a board member for the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group for train travel.

"Jim was proud of the part that rail advocates played as stakeholders in expanding passenger rail services in the Northwest,” RPA Chairman Peter LeCody said in a statement. “Last year he took my wife and me on a tour of the region showing how important rail is to connect us in our daily lives. I will miss my friend Jim."

One of Hamre’s best friends, Zack Willhoite, also died in the train crash.

Willhoite, 35, lived in Spanaway and had worked as an IT specialist at Pierce Transit since 2008.

“He has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency,” Pierce Transit wrote in a statement Tuesday morning. “He will be sincerely missed.”

In a WSDOT email sent Tuesday morning to Olympic region staff, Ron Pate, director of rail, freight and ports, was quoted as saying, “Jim was a long-time colleague and friend. I am absolutely devastated and saddened that this tragic event happened to Jim and Zack.”

Molly Boone, a friend of the Willhoite family who lives in Kent, said Willhoite’s wife had spent all day Monday on a rollercoaster search for her husband.

“There were a lot of people helping to look for him and his friend, Jim, because we were worried about them both,” Boone said. “She had friends and family driving her all over trying to find Zack and they just kept hitting walls of misinformation. It was horrifying to be stuck on the sidelines unable to do anything.”

Willhoite’s public Facebook page mainly showcases photos of vintage and restored buses used in public transit in the Tacoma area. He was an active member of a group called Friends of 374, which is devoted to tracking the history and restoration of the 374 or “Fishbowl” transit bus once used by Pierce Transit.

Kevin Cartwright met Willhoite through their shared interest in antique buses, and described Willhoite as a fastidious public transportation archivist.

“Without Zack’s research, photography, historic photo archiving, and vast knowledge of transportation history, much of the information he has collected would have been lost or forgotten, and this valuable data would not be available to current transit advocates and transit planners as they look to the past to formulate viable plans for the future,” Cartwright wrote via e-mail.

“He generously shared his knowledge and became a good friend to many of us who once approached him for information.”

Cartwright said Willhoite recently got married and the newlyweds bought a home together in Spanaway.

“They were so excited to have the house, and he was able to park his bus there rather than a remote storage lot. They were so happy about their new life together,” he said.

KUOW editor Gil Aegerter contributed to this report.

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