Eli Skrypczak played on his phone Monday afternoon while aboard an Amtrak train hurtling through the heartland of Missouri. As he slipped in and out of sleep, the 15-year-old Boy Scout and more than 270 other passengers were unaware of the dump truck ahead that was about to change their lives.
Eli and 14 other Boy Scouts had spent 10 days exploring the backcountry of New Mexico, mostly by backpacking through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and were on their way home to Appleton, Wis., said Dan Skrypczak, Eli’s father and the scoutmaster of Appleton Troop 73.
Each of the Scouts was whiling away the train ride in his own way, Skrypczak told The Washington Post late Tuesday. A few had used an app on their phone to determine the train was going about 90 mph, which impressed them. Some ate in the dining car. Others took in the scenery from an observation car retrofitted with floor-to-ceiling windows. One happened to be in the bathroom.
At 12:43 p.m., “a giant jolt” awakened Eli, who was in his seat. There was twisting metal and loud creaking. He smelled diesel. Then, his train car overturned onto its side, causing Eli to fall onto fellow Scouts who had been sitting across the aisle on the side of the train that had become the new floor.
Dan Skrypczak, 46, who was not on the train, said his son told him that “people started to panic.”
The Amtrak train had hit a dump truck at a road crossing near Mendon, derailing two locomotives and nearly every train car, The Post reported. Heading from Los Angeles to Chicago along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line, the train was carrying 275 passengers and 12 crew members, according to Amtrak.
The collision caused some of the Scouts from Wisconsin to lose their phones, AirPods and even their shoes, Skrypczak said. Eli and the others collected their wits, made sure they were all accounted for and started helping people.
“The adrenaline kicked in, and something took over and I knew what to do,” Eli told WITI. “It was unreal. It still doesn’t seem real to me.”
First, the Scouts secured passengers who seemed like they might have spinal cord injuries, his father told The Post. Then, they started popping out the train car’s emergency windows. When some became stuck, the Scouts used their shirts for protection and broke the glass. They evacuated everyone they could.
They were “getting people out of windows and carrying them down,” Eli told the Milwaukee-based TV station. “I had to carry a couple kids in my arms, two at a time.”
After that, Eli ran to the front of the train to see if anyone was injured, his father told The Post. He learned the train had hit a vehicle when he saw wheels or an axle near the tracks. Then, in a ditch, he spotted a man who turned out to be the driver of the dump truck the train had just hit, whom authorities identified as Billy Barton II, 54, of Brookfield, Mo.
He was hurt — badly. He was bleeding and, although he was breathing, the man was gurgling. Eli gave him some water and tried to stop the bleeding. He told the driver that help was on the way. He held his hand. Soon, a local farmer joined Eli as they tended to the dying man.
“They were trying to comfort him,” Skrypczak said.
Eli and the farmer kept up their efforts until emergency crews arrived, something that probably took minutes but “seemed like a lifetime,” Skrypczak said. The first responders eventually told Eli and the farmer it was time to “call it” and “attend to the living.”
“And that’s what Eli and the boys did,” Skrypczak said.
Eli jumped into the fray. Since the crash, Skrypczak said, he’s been getting messages from others at the scene who remembered Eli as the kid pinballing between firetrucks and the crash site to resupply paramedics. Based on what others have told him, Skrypczak estimated his son made 100 trips.
“As a dad and a scoutmaster, I’m unbelievably proud,” Skrypczak said.
But Eli was just one of the Scouts helping, he added. Some performed first aid on their own scoutmasters who had been seriously injured. Others hauled passengers on backboards from the crash site to ambulances. When paramedics stopped them from doing that for the more seriously injured patients, the Scouts stripped out parts of the train car that might block rescue workers from getting people out of the wreckage.
“I teach emergency preparedness and first aid, and I don’t know that I would have thought of that,” Skrypczak said. “They had the demeanor to think of that. [I’m] so very proud of them."
“They certainly lived the Scout oath,” Skrypczak added.
Eventually, emergency crews ordered the Scouts to go to medical staffers for assessment. All of them ended up going to the hospital, although none were seriously injured. Most are dealing with soreness and bruising. Some might have whiplash and a cracked rib or two. “But nothing serious,” Skrypczak said. “Some of these kids have certainly had worse on the athletic field.”
All of the Scouts were back home in Wisconsin late Tuesday, Skrypczak said.
Eli and his fellow Scouts have solid support networks at home and school. Their parents are already making sure they get the counseling they need to work through Monday’s derailment.
Once the adrenaline wore off, Eli was shaken up, his father said, adding that he thinks his son was experiencing the first pangs of survivor’s guilt. By Tuesday, he seemed fine, although Skrypczak knows firsthand that his son will have to cope with what happened for years to come.
“Eli is upset he couldn’t do more. I keep reiterating to him that he did everything he could. The state highway patrol told him the same thing. There was nothing he could’ve done to save him,” Skrypczak told Today, speaking of the truck driver.
Like his son, Skrypczak has found himself pressed into sudden rescue efforts, not all of which have had happy endings, he told The Post. So he knows that’s not something you shake off in a couple days. Trying to help someone with all your might only to have that person die in front of you — “it’s devastating.”