Nathaniel Cox was nearing the end of an eight-day pleasure ride on America's railroads early today when a tragic train derailment shattered his holiday.

"I was walking from my coach through the diner and into the club car when the crash occurred," said Cox, a 43-year-old General Electric Co. engineer from Springfield, Mass., who was one of the few passengers up and about when the No. 2 Southern Crescent jumped its tracks near Elma, Va. at 5:38 a.m.

The train, operated by Southern Railway, carried 65 passengers and a crew of about 12. Most of the passengers were asleep at the time of the accident, but Cox said his coach had been overheating "and I decided to go up and see how soon breakfast would be served."

Cox, interviewed in Charlottesville where the most seriously injured were hospitalized while other survivors were housed in a motel or bused to Washington, said the club car he had just entered "split" after the crash "and left a little tunnel through the side for me to crawl out."

Cox said he and other passengers helped each other climb out of the overturned or twisted coaches of the derailed train and then waited in the dark for emergency rescue crews to arrive.

Cox, who received head and arm injuries, was riding in one of the four cars most seriously damaged.

John Varner, a 25-year-old newsman from Atlanta, who was on his honeymoon, said the death toll "would have been much worse" if the accident had occurred a little later -- while passengers were in the dining car having breakfast.

"Most everybody was asleep except for the employes who were working on the breakfast menu," said Varner, who was with his wife in a Pullman car, the second car from the end, when the train derailed. The pair suffered minor injuries from falling luggage.

"The diner and club cars caught the brunt of it," said Varner of the crash, which he said trapped numerous persons, mostly employes, in twisted piles of wreckage.

"Five men were trapped in the kitchen car area, and it took an hour and a half to untangle them," Varner said.

Varner told of seeing someone who had been thrown out of the train and then was pinned underneath the wreckage when some of the cars overturned.

The train was due to arrive in Washington at 8:30 a.m., said Varner. It also was scheduled to take on additional passengers in Charlottesville, 35 miles

"Some cars were completely flipped onto their sides," said Varner, whose own car "went off the track but was still upright."

One woman, according to an Associated Press report, was holding her baby at the time of the crash and fell on top of him, along with another passenger who had been sitting nearby.

"That saved him because the luggage fell on us," she said.

Christian Frazza, 23-year-old New Yorker, said he was trapped in the car after the accident. "There was smoke in the car, and I broke out a window and threw my stuff out and crawled out behind it."

Others said they could not get out on their own and had to wait for rescuers, who arrived within a half hour of the accident.

"They broke the windows and lined the bottom of the windows with blankets and pillows so we could crawl out without cutting ourselves on the glass," said passenger David Block of Brooklvn. N.Y.