Amtrak crash survivors recall a peaceful ride that ended in tragedy

Amtrak crash survivors recall a peaceful ride that ended in tragedy

Amtrak Train 188 was a little late rolling into Washington's Union Station. Some passengers puzzled over where it had been.

A gathering crowd expected a 7:10 p.m. departure and a peaceful ride that would, for many, mark an end to a long and sweltering Tuesday workday in the nation's capital.

The passengers piled in. The train rolled out 10 to 15 minutes late, never to reach its final destination.

The derailment that would mangle seven train cars hours later in Philadelphia -- killing at least seven people and injuring more than 200 -- terrified its survivors and prompted a shock of recognition for thousands of Americans who routinely make the trek up the coast to Penn Station in New York.

This ride was little different, until Train 188 began rounding the curve in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, just a little over an hour from its final destination.

It began with a thud, said Jeff Kutler, a financial journalist who was riding in the quiet car. Suddenly, the window that had been on his side, offering him a twilight view of the world, was at his feet.

His car, which felt like it had been lifted up into the air, was on its side. The train's impact was so severe that it shook the houses by the tracks and sent a bright flash into the sky seen by nearby residents.

Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, was sitting peacefully in the cafe car, listening to music on his headphones and working on his iPad, when his car started vibrating violently.

The server who had been standing behind the counter was “pushed back and forth like a pinball," and Murphy, a 200-pound Iraq war veteran, said in a phone interview that he was thrown into the air as well.

As a matter of physics, it would take a little longer for the crisis to reach the back of the train, where Jeremy S. Wladis, 51, a restaurateur who runs the AG Pizza and Fuel Kitchen franchises, felt a single hard shake.

Then a second hard shake.

Then a third, which is when Wladis heard screams, and smelled something like rubber, and felt the doomed tug of brakes as the train began tossing the contents of Wladis' car like a loose deck of cards.

“Stuff started flying: Laptops, notebooks -- regular notebooks -- cellphones, purses, you name it, coats, and even two women were catapulted right above us, right above where I was sitting, in the luggage rack," Wladis recalled in a phone interview. “I was squished between the window and my seat – the seats were turned, twisted, trays were bent, it was just chaos."

The train cars came to rest in incoherent disarray, with a front car practically disintegrated and the last car still largely intact and upright, albeit tilted at a 30-degree angle like a listing battleship.

'WE'RE GOING TO DIE!'

In the darkened cars, survivors took stock of their bumped heads and broken bones. Kutler compared it to being stuffed into a closet and struggling to swim through a tangle of purses, shoes, books and items scattered by the impact. 

Was I in one piece? was Kutler's first thought.

Kutler was, though he had a large red welt on his head and an aching leg. One woman in his car had a broken leg.

In the cafe car, Murphy “just checked my arms and legs,” he said. “They were there. They were working.”

So he put them to work immediately. With the car turned on its side, Murphy reached up to unhinge the emergency exit window and helped boost passengers up so they could climb out.

One man, who was bleeding from his nose, ears and head, was screaming, “'We’re going to die!' and he was kind of flipping out,” Murphy said.

Murphy told him to sit down and stay calm, that ambulances were on the way. He asked another passenger to hold the hand of a man in the corner who said he could not feel his arms and legs.

Within minutes, first responders arrived and began evacuating people who could not climb out on their own.

'COME USE OUR HOUSE'

In the final car, Wladis also helped passengers as public safety officials swarmed into the wreckage. They cut down a fence and led passengers through a field toward a poor neighborhood where residents gathered to help the survivors, Wladis said.

"The people were so nice," Wladis said of the residents. "They were bringing us bottles of water, saying, 'Come use our house, the bathroom.' They were just wonderful, wonderful people, trying to help us, trying to do the right thing."

Not all the dangers were physical, and the public's impulses weren't always to provide aid. One survivor, a violinist for the Washington National Opera Orchestra, looked back at the derailed train as rescuers crawled aboard.

She tweeted a photo of the cars to Amtrak and asked, "Thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of train?" After receiving instant abuse from other users watching the action on Twitter, she deleted the tweet and her account.

News of the crash rattled other riders who had been on the train before it derailed or who hadn't boarded as planned.

A LITTLE BOY AT UNION STATION

Rachel Hirsch, 31, a civil and white-collar criminal defense attorney, had taken that train home to Baltimore from D.C., and by Wednesday afternoon still couldn't get her fellow passengers' faces out of her mind.

She had sat in the cafe car and joked with the attendant and talked with someone headed to New York.

"Everyone seemed very jovial, given the circumstances, and thinking back, some of these people may have been injured or passed on -- it’s heartbreaking to think of that," Hirsch said in a phone interview.

Eight months' pregnant, she struggled to think of what she would have done if she'd had to climb out of a window, and she keeps thinking of a little boy at Union Station that she'd seen sprawled out over a couple seats, reading "Captain Underpants" or something similar.

“I keep thinking that little boy is OK," Hirsch said. "I hope he made it off OK.”

Sam Kille, 44, of Mineola, N.Y., communications manager for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, has spent Wednesday stunned by the crash. He was supposed to be on that train. He was leaving a conference in D.C., but got to Union Station early and took an earlier departure.

“Shortly after I got home, a little after 10 o'clock, I started getting texts and Facebook messages. People knew I was traveling that day,” Kille said. “My little sister in San Diego called me, and she never calls me."

He had trouble sleeping after hearing about the derailment.

“It’s definitely a feeling of relief,” Kille said in a phone interview. “To some degree there’s also a little bit of a sense of guilt due to the fact that – you think about those that were hurt and injured and their families."

Those who survived said they did not notice the train traveling faster than usual. For their survival, they said they were simply thankful.

Wladis' phone has been ringing off the hook, and during an interview with The Times he stopped telling his story for a moment to greet a friend. 

“I’m alive and kicking! I look great only because I’m alive,” Wladis told the friend. “I’m happy to be alive. I’m a lucky guy.”

Murphy, the former congressman, put it more bluntly: “I feel like I’m a lucky son of a bitch." 

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