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2 Wreck Survivors Had Expected Quiet Trip Home From Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sigmund and Edith Steinberg rolled out of Los Angeles’ Union Station aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited Sunday night, ready to enjoy a peaceful three-day train ride back to their Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., home after a two-week visit with their daughter in Tarzana.

That expectation was shattered sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. Wednesday when a piece of wood or steel ripped through the wall of Sigmund Steinberg’s berth and he was thrown to the floor.

But unlike at least 44 others aboard, the Steinbergs--he is 81, she is 77--survived the crash of the Amtrak train into a swamp outside Mobile, Ala., along with at least 150 other passengers.

“We were asleep and then we just felt a tremendous crash, bang . . . and I was thrown feet-first from the bed and the luggage came down on my head,” said Edith Steinberg, who slept in a lower bunk. “People were running and yelling to get out.”

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Sigmund Steinberg quickly pushed his legs into a pair of trousers, slid his feet into a pair of slippers and helped his wife off the train. He gave her his bathrobe.

They were the last ones off the train, he said.

“When we came out we saw the fire, very black, lots of smoke, like an oil slick rising in the sky,” he said. “It was dismal.”

“We stayed in the back of the train, where the tracks were. Someone ran in the train and got blankets from someplace. People came out without stockings, shoes or trousers. It was a chaotic scene.

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“I’ll tell you, God was with us,” he said. “We don’t get around as well as we used to, and to have seen this scene this morning and have been spared is a godsend.”

In Tarzana, Allan Wertheim awoke at 4 a.m. to begin his day and saw a televised news report of the train crash, said his wife, Sandra Wertheim, the Steinbergs’ daughter.

“We knew immediately it was my parents’ train,” she said. “I thought I had lost my parents.”

For eight of the last nine years, the Steinbergs traveled to the San Fernando Valley to vacation with their daughter and son-in-law. They always take the train because Sigmund Steinberg, who suffers from a heart condition, was told many years ago not to travel by air.

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“We love this particular trip because we can go from Florida to Union Station without changing trains,” he said. “That’s a big, big plus for us.”

The Steinbergs sat on the tracks behind the wrecked train and watched coach car passengers haul themselves out of the swamp, observing how passengers aided each other until help arrived about two hours later.

“Some people didn’t have shoes, and people would take tablecloths and wrap others’ feet in it,” Edith Steinberg said. “It was wet and damp and there were mosquitoes and ants everywhere. I got bitten up.”

Her husband said it appeared as if half of a trestle bridge, which he estimated was about 50 feet long, just collapsed when the train rolled onto it.

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“As part of the train went over, it split in half. The front part just collapsed,” he said. “I don’t think the people up front ever had a chance.”

When a rescue train arrived with about 30 emergency workers, the Steinbergs boarded and were given water, blankets and words of encouragement.

The train took them to Mobile, where they were transferred by ambulance to Spring Hill Memorial Hospital. They were examined, treated for minor bruises and released.

Sigmund Steinberg called Tarzana as soon as he could and found Allan Wertheim awaiting his call.

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“When you didn’t call right away, I thought you were gone,” Wertheim told him.

Sandra Wertheim was besieged by calls from reporters, with television crews in her front yard for most of the day. She said that although they consider themselves “very private people,” they were willing to talk to reporters when they discovered that her parents had lived.

“I’m a lucky person today,” Sandra Wertheim said. “My parents came out to attend a family wedding and celebrate the High Holy Days. When I didn’t hear from them, I was formulating the worst, and it was a very long three hours looking at all the pictures that were coming in” on television, she said.

“I guess I broke down when my father called.”

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The Steinbergs said they have no plans to halt their annual Valley visits, and will continue to come by train.

“I saw the Marlins play the Dodgers, went to the Hollywood Bowl, saw ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Sigmund Steinberg said. “We had a nice time, the nicest time we’ve ever had since we’ve been coming to the Valley. God willing, we’ll be back next year.”

Edith Steinberg said that although she is not afraid to fly, she still feels safer on a train than in an airplane, despite the crash.

“I got a chance to walk out of it,” she noted.

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