I Survived Amtrak 188

Thrown across the quiet car, an Observer reporter recalls a horrifying train derailment

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At least six people were killed and more than 200 others were injured in the crash.  (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At least six people were killed and more than 200 others were injured in the crash. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I have something of an obsession with disasters.

My husband and a few friends know how fascinated I am by plane crashes. I have spent hours reading about them, clicking through from Wikipedia pages to National Transportation Safety Board reports. When I was a freshman in high school I chose the Challenger space shuttle disaster as a term paper topic. I have read over and over about fire disasters like the Station nightclub or Happyland Social Club.

I don’t know why. I’m a very anxious person, so maybe it’s some defense mechanism—understanding things makes them less frightening. And understanding things and being able to explain them is part of my job as a reporter. At its most basic level, my job is about curiosity and gathering information that we try to turn into answers.

So in the days since Amtrak 188 flew off its rails with me and 242 other people sitting inside it, I have been unable to stop thinking about what happened. It was one of the first things I said aloud, after we came to rest: “How could this happen?” I keep replaying it in my mind, hoping for an explanation.

I was sitting in the quiet car, the second passenger car in the train. I had spent the first half of the ride working, finishing up a story about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s trip to Washington, D.C. When I finished my story I debated starting on another. But I was tired. My grandmother had died just the day before, and ahead of me once I got off the train would be her wake and funeral. I decided to cut myself a break and relax for the last hour-and-a-half. I walked to the cafe car, where a nice Amtrak employee told me they were out of white wine, so I ordered a $6.50 mini bottle of cabernet sauvignon, left her a tip, and took the wine back to my seat.

I saw that car tip to the right, and any hope I had of the train slowing down evaporated. But at the same time my mind slowed down, just like they say it will in a moment like this, and I knew very clearly we were derailing.

I was sitting in an aisle seat on the left side of the train with no one next to me, after moving from the right side of the train when the entire left row opened up. I drank my wine out of a plastic cup and read on my iPhone. I texted my husband, Andrew, to ask if he could pick me up in about an hour when we got to Newark, and he said he’d be there when my train pulled in at 10:10.

Philadelphia came and went. Minutes later, the train shook. It was enough to make me look up. It felt like exactly what it was—like we were hitting a curve too fast. I know now that curve was to the left, but all I could feel was the train lurching rightward. From my aisle seat, I could see it happen to the car ahead of us first—the business class car, just a couple dozen feet away from me, where most of the deaths were. I saw that car tip to the right, and any hope I had of the train slowing down evaporated. But at the same time my mind slowed down, just like they say it will in a moment like this, and I knew very clearly we were derailing. I felt a tremendous bump and the lights went out. My phone and the cup of wine flew out of my hands. I flew out of my seat as the train barreled across sets of tracks at more than 100 miles per hour.

It was almost like being knocked down by an ocean wave—the sensation of falling end over end, limbs flailing, blindly groping for help, the loud rush of churning water filling your ears. But there was no water or soft sand, instead there was just empty space and debris—other people, their belongings, chairs that became dislodged by the violent force of the crash.

I’ve always thought it was a little melodramatic when people on TV shows scream out the word “no” as something bad happens. But that’s what I did, as if the sheer terror in my voice might be enough to stop the massive train’s momentum. I thought of my grandmother. I thought I would die. Then I thought that I could not die, that I could not put my family through another loss. I thought about getting home. I waited for the feeling of being crushed, but it never came.

I know from pictures that my train car had fallen all the way onto its right side, after traveling quite a distance off the tracks. I came to rest on what had been the right side of the train but was now its floor, all the way across the aisle from where I had sat, and I think the equivalent of a few rows ahead. There were no rows anymore, the seats a jumbled mess in the pitch-black steel box.

I tried to catch my breath. I took stock of my situation. I was underneath an overturned seat, pressed up against something, I’m not sure what. There was a woman right behind me. She asked if I was O.K. I said yes, I could feel my arms and legs. “I can’t feel my leg,” she said to me. “I think it’s broken.” It looked broken. My back hurt but I was moving, I was breathing, I wasn’t bleeding. I was O.K. Other people around me tried to figure out where everyone was. Someone touched my feet and asked who they belonged to. “Me,” I said. “I’m O.K.”

People in the car began to moan, to sob for help. A woman and a man near me were both trapped under debris, and the woman was screaming about something being on her back, begging someone to get her out. Nobody knew how to help her. The man next to her explained he couldn’t free her, he was stuck, too, but he asked where she was headed. He asked if he could hold her hand.

I had wriggled out from under the seat that had trapped me and made my way carefully, shaking, around debris and people. A pregnant woman had dialed 911, along with several others in the car, and she used her GPS to determine exactly where we were. I started to look for a way out of the dark and dirty train, illuminated only by people’s cell phones. I could not see either end of the train car, so the doors were not an option. Those of us who had gotten free and could move sort of staggered around a bit, trying to understand what was up and what was down. There was a man lying in the center of the train car—what had once been its ceiling. He was still alive, but his head was covered in blood.

I remembered the fires I had seen come after other derailments I’d read about and I began to fear the prospect of living through the crash only to choke to death on smoke. Nobody seemed to be able to find a way out. Finally I noticed that one window looked different than all the others—it was open. The emergency window. I made my way over to it on the uneven surface, walking on the curved side of the train car. The window was up high, I had to climb the wall a bit to stick my head out of it, and I saw the dark, rocky railyard where we had come to rest.

I screamed for help. A man in work clothes with a flashlight heard me and turned around. He said help was coming. Soon I heard sirens. I asked the man about how high up the window was, trying to figure out if I could jump out. He told me at least 10 or 12 feet. But firefighters were coming, he said. They’d have a ladder. I kept my head in the window and could hear people outside talking about trying to shut the electricity, warning people to stay away from wires. I didn’t see any smoke or fire.

“Help is coming,” I told the other people in my car.

People board an Amtrak train at Penn Station on February 8, 2011 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People board an Amtrak train at Penn Station on February 8, 2011 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I yelled out there was a pregnant woman in the car. But she was more worried about other people. Another passenger told me to tell the workers there were head and back injuries, so I did. Soon a fireman arrived at our car. He promptly saw he needed a ladder and went off to get one.

He put the ladder up against the train, right next to the window, and he climbed up it. I must have been panicking by then, and I was probably babbling about getting out the entire time, because he admonished me a bit. “I need you to listen to me,” he said. But the window was too high up for me to pull myself out of it—even with the adrenaline I didn’t possess the upper body strength.

“Gentlemen,” the firefighter, who remained outside and next to the window, told a group of about four guys who had gathered behind me. “You’re going to give this lady a boost. We’re all going to boost each other out of here. We’re all going to get out.”

With that, the men lifted me up. I was able to swing one leg onto the ladder, then the other. I was out. I was shaking as I made my way down the ladder, emergency workers behind me to make sure I didn’t fall.

The pregnant woman was next. “You were so calm. Thank you. You were so great,” I told her when we were outside. She was so helpful, and I had already begun to feel like I had not been helpful at all. Later I talked to a minister who said she was the next one out, even though she asked the fireman if she could stay inside and comfort people. They needed the car cleared so they could get to the more seriously injured. I looked around and saw another car with a pole twisted into it. I don’t think I ever saw the mangled metal of the first class car, or if I did, I didn’t realize what it was.

I asked myself the question again: “How could this happen?” I thought with bitter irony about a story I had written a few weeks ago about funding for Positive Train Control, which the NTSB later said would have prevented the accident. I bent over and tried to breathe deep. After being the perfect picture of calm, the pregnant woman started to cry.

I didn’t cry until later—after we’d been walked across tracks, over rocks, through a sparsely wooded area and out onto a North Philly street where the onlookers had already gathered and a kind resident had already brought out a case of water for the people who staggered onto his block. I didn’t cry when I called my mom using a cellphone that belonged to a quiet man named Gene, and I didn’t cry when she didn’t answer. My voice is calm and authoritative on the message. It was something like: There has been an accident. I am O.K. It’s very bad. I need someone to come get me. I am O.K. I need you to call Andrew and tell him this. I didn’t cry when I borrowed yet another phone from a friendly woman who had been on my car and got my husband on the line, listening to his disbelief as I explained what had happened and where I was so he could come get me.

The tears only came hours later, after a SEPTA bus had taken me and others—“the walking wounded”—to a hospital on the edge of town. They sat me in a wheelchair and asked where it hurt (the lower right side of my back, my right leg), if I had hit my head (no?), is my blood pressure always this high (sometimes). They wheeled me over to an area they were keeping people who needed x-rays.

As I waited, I thought of how I had walked out of a train car in which other people were killed or maimed with just bruises and a sore back. Why me? There must be a reason. I could have died. I almost died. I thought of my grandmother and the idea that she could have been watching over me, silly as it sounds, and I began to cry.

When I was put into a hospital room, my husband arrived and gave me his phone so I could let people know I was O.K. before they took me off for x-rays. I was in pain but the x-rays showed I hadn’t broken anything, and I wondered how I could be so lucky. When I got back to the hospital room I turned on the television and watched footage of the wreck I’d walked away from. The chyron said five people were dead. The figure would eventually jump to eight. I felt at once sick and thankful. I couldn’t turn away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted an answer that I knew I wasn’t going to get.

A Philadelphia detective came in to interview me and asked if I wanted to be watching the footage of the wreck. I mumbled something about being a news junkie as he changed it to ESPN. I told the detective everything I remembered about the accident. My husband joined me in the room. The detective made jokes, I tried to laugh. A hospital employee came to discharge me. His jokes were even less funny. We gave him our insurance information. I realized for the first time that I was covered in dirt and tried to wash it off my arms, my face, and we headed home to Jersey City.

Senior Politics Editor: Jillian Jorgensen. (Photo: Daniel Cole/For New York Observer)
Senior Politics Editor: Jillian Jorgensen. (Photo: Daniel Cole/For New York Observer)

Since then I have drifted through the days, spending much of Wednesday on the phone with reporters like me, doing interviews or politely declining them. The media response has taught me a lot about what it’s like to be on the other side of a story. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I fell asleep in the afternoon and missed a nice call from Mayor de Blasio. Thursday and Friday brought my grandmother’s wake, her funeral, with the odd sensation of having stolen her thunder. I told the story of the accident over and over. I listened to people opine about the engineer doing twice the speed limit. I have felt guilty for not doing more in the train car, felt funny that people were making such a fuss over me, felt frightened by loud thuds or the thought of taking the train to work. I was afraid to write this, worried someone would criticize the way I’ve reacted during and after the crash. I usually tell the stories of others and making this my story to tell is uncomfortable.

Whenever I could, I read about the crash. I looked at photos over and over, trying to make sense of what I remembered, trying to pinpoint exactly where I was, as if it’d help me understand. I waited, I am waiting, for some ace transportation reporter or government official to tell me why. Why would the engineer speed up? Why weren’t safety systems in place? Who would throw a rock at a train, and did it even matter? How could this happen? And then the question intertwined with that one: How could this happen to me? Why was I on this train and why was I so lucky to walk away from it? Why am I alive?

Yesterday, the trains started running again on those tracks. It’s been almost a week and the news cycle has moved on. The NTSB and the FBI will do their jobs and maybe one day I and everyone else aboard the train will have an answer about how this could happen, a long report to read that can maybe teach us something about safety.

But for so many of the other questions, the ones that make us well up with tears or lash out in frustration, I may never get the answer I’m looking for.

I Survived Amtrak 188