A veteran Washington State Patrol trooper and accident-reconstruction expert who led the agency’s investigation into the 2017 derailment of an Amtrak train in Pierce County has died from COVID-19 contracted while on the job, the agency said Sunday.
The patrol said Trooper Eric Gunderson, 38, a husband, father and 16-year WSP veteran, died Sunday morning surrounded by his family. Gunderson is survived by his wife Kameron and two sons, Braden, 10, and Blake, 13, the agency said.
WSP Chief John Batiste said Gunderson is the 32nd trooper to die in the line of duty since the agency’s formation 100 years ago, a landmark celebrated just weeks ago.
“Eric Gunderson was a respected trooper and public servant,” Batiste said in a statement. “I had hoped our second century of service would be more forgiving.”
“But serving the public, as we do, has inherent dangers and this pandemic has been a foe to our agency and indeed our state and nation,” Batiste said. The agency said Gunderson is believed to have contracted COVID-19 while on a trip related to his police work with aerial drones.
Agency spokesperson Chris Loftis said he did not know whether Gunderson had been vaccinated and said the agency for now is “focusing on supporting the family and honoring their privacy during their loss.” He said the agency “will share what it can, when it can regarding this intersection of a very raw moment of tragedy and a very real time of public debate and interest.”
Gunderson embraced technology and used his expertise as a pioneer in the use of drones to expedite and improve investigations.
Gunderson’s methods were featured in media articles and he traveled the country lecturing and advocating for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to aid law enforcement.
“His pioneering work has allowed the state to shorten the time of road closures during collision investigations,” the WSP said in a release. “His work after the 2017 Amtrak passenger train derailment in DuPont gained wide acclaim and appreciation for its precision and value.”
Gunderson used drones to map the scene of the DuPont wreckage even as rescuers were pulling survivors from the train, which was on its inaugural run from Seattle to Portland on Dec. 18, 2017, when it approached a curve leading to a bridge over Interstate 5 at more than 50 mph over the recommended speed. The train jumped the rails and several cars spilled onto the freeway. Three people were killed, 68 passengers and crew members were hurt, and damages were estimated at more than $40 million.
Gunderson’s expertise with the drones and reconstruction techniques enabled him to create a model of the massive crash and much of what led up to it within nine hours, according to reports. He had put together a three-dimensional view of the accident scene in a day and a half.
“Pushing the envelope with our technology is having a huge impact,” Gunderson said in a subsequent article about his work. “We could never have trained for an incident like the derailment. But when it happened, we didn’t hesitate to respond because we knew we had the technology and tools we needed. You’re going to have victims who want answers and investigators who have to give those answers. Our ability to provide information that will help people find the answers feels really good.”
Gunderson joined the WSP in 2005 and was commissioned as a sworn officer three years later. He worked as the technology liaison officer with the Criminal Investigation Division in the patrol’s Tacoma-based District 1, and later became a detective specializing in accident reconstruction. His technical expertise was called on by every bureau in the agency. He also was a member of the WSP’s Special Weapons and Tactics team.
Plans for a memorial service are pending the “guidance and wishes” of the family, Loftis said.
“We will show our fallen hero the respect and honors his service to our state and agency deserve,” said Batiste, the WSP chief.