Shaun and Eunice Meyers had just purchased party food for the Super Bowl. Julie Sickles was headed to a Laurel restaurant for dinner. And Bernard and Hilda Wittkamp had just gassed up their Lincoln Town Car and were approaching Route 1 and Ritz Way in Beltsville.
Then it happened: Bernard missed a left turn, and his car rumbled down a hill and onto the CSX tracks six minutes before a freight train was due.
"What happened to me was nothing short of a miracle," Bernard said as he sat in a hospital room with his wife a few days after the Jan. 25 accident.
Hilda Wittkamp, who suffered a broken shoulder and ankle, said she was grateful to be alive. "You can never underestimate the power of the Lord," she said.
The couple, both 81, who live in the 2800 block of Pawnee Street in Adelphi, were pulled from the car by the three passers-by. Hilda was extracted just before the freight train struck.
From Washington Hospital Center to the Prince George's County Administration Building, Friday was a day of gratitude as the Wittkamps and their three rescuers reflected on the near-tragedy, the events of which were captured on a 911 call made by Julie Sickles.
Dispatcher: "Prince George's County Emergency Center. May I help you?"
Sickles: "Hi, we are at the corner of Ritz Way and Route 1, and a guy just went through a light and his car is stuck on the railroad track right now."
Six minutes later, at 7:29 p.m., Sickles called again.
Sickles: "We need somebody to come right now! There is a train coming, and there is a car stuck on the track right now! It is at Ritz Way and Route 1. The train is coming, like now!"
The tape captured the voices of people screaming in the background.
Dispatcher: "Is there anybody inside the car?"
Sickles continued talking as Shaun Meyers and others struggled to get Hilda Wittkamp out of the vehicle: "We are getting there. Come on, excuse me. Come on! Sir. No! We have got him out!"
The roar of the passing train can be heard on the tape.
Sickles: "Yes, we got them both out!"
Prince George's County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell came to Friday's event and provided the 911 tape because, he said, the rescuers risked their lives.
"It can be extremely hazardous with the unpredictability of the train and the potential hazard of a car being involved," Blackwell said. "It certainly creates some concerns for career and volunteer firefighters, but when civilians are so willing to face those risks it is really gratifying."
Blackwell said that police and fire officials are investigating how the car ended up on the track. "There is a scenario that the car was struck, and there is another scenario that the car might have gone through a light," he said.
In the meantime, the Meyerses have formed a friendship with the Wittkamps.
Shaun Meyers, 41, a mechanical engineer with his own company, said: "My wife said this was like a bad B movie. At the time . . . we just did the best we could to get out of the way."
"I just thank God that He put us there to help those people at that particular time," said Eunice Meyers, 36, a financial analyst. "I had a feeling that Shaun was there for a purpose. When the train came, he remained calm and just wanted to get her out."
Shaun Meyers said two women were able to pull Bernard Wittkamp out of the car shortly after it became stuck. Hilda Wittkamp, however, was jammed lower in the seat and was tangled in her seat belt.
"If I knew a train was coming, I would have fainted," Hilda said. "You never know from day to day what will show up, but with the Lord you can do it."
Bernard Wittkamp said he was grateful that his wife was rescued because it was difficult, with her injuries, to extract her.
"It was a matter of seconds before the train hit and we were clear of the car," he said. "When the accident occurred, I said, 'My God in heaven, what in the world is happening?' When I got out of the car, I could hear the train and see the light. All that I could think of was, don't let the train explode because I had just filled the tank with gas."
After the couple were safely out of the car, the Meyerses protected them with their bodies while the freight train passed.
On Friday, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) honored the Meyerses, who live in Beltsville, and Sickles, of Adelphi, for saving the lives of the Wittkamps.
"Ordinary people doing extraordinary acts," Johnson said. "I hope that this act will remind us of the goodness of the community."