Carol Cissel, 53, has a new grandchild in College Park, Md., and wants to see him as often as she can. So she rides the Amtrak train from her home in New Jersey almost every Sunday, and “like clockwork,” she said, takes the 7:22 p.m. train from New Carrollton back home on Tuesdays.
Tuesday’s trip was different. First she heard the noise — like the bump-bump-bump of a person falling down a flight of stairs, she said. Then the peace of the quiet car, in which she had chosen to ride, was completely shattered. The car tipped over — she thought it would right itself for a moment — and then kept tumbling, all the way onto its side. The passengers screamed.
Cissel said she saw one woman trapped under a seat moaning. Cissel and others tried to free the woman, but she screamed that they should stop because it hurt too much for her to move.
Cissel saw an open window and climbed out, upside-down. “I was standing in the ceiling of the train to climb out the window,” she said.
She did not know then that at least six people had died, with some 60 or more injured in one of Amtrak’s worst derailments in years.
Former U.S. congressman Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), an anchor on MSNBC’s “Taking the Hill,” was in the train’s cafe car near the front of the line when it derailed. He told The Washington Post that the train had just stopped in Wilmington, Del., where some passengers, including Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), had departed. Shortly after, the car started to rock — first to the left, then to the right.
He said he slammed into a window. Then he knocked into a fellow passenger.
“I landed on someone who had taken Senator Tom Carper’s seat,” he said. “It was pretty dark and extremely dusty with debris flying all over. People screaming. People crying. I pulled myself up, reached over to the window and punched out the emergency window with my palm and tried to help people get out.”
Murphy soon sent out a message on Twitter, saying, “I’m ok. Helping others. Pray for those injured.” Then he posted a photo showing first responders climbing inside a train car, which appeared to be leaning over. Another image showed wounded passengers on board.
Andrew Cheng and his wife, in the United States from Singapore for a family reunion, were on board along with more than a dozen relatives split up among the rail cars returning from a one-day visit to Washington.
Partway through their trip to New York, Cheng, 64, said he heard a series of bangs and felt the train slip off the tracks. “It was so quick. But you can feel that the train was derailed. It jumped. And then it kept bumping, and kept on sliding,” he said. He said he was sitting in the second-to-last car, which ended up slanted but not fully on its side when it hit the ground. He fell onto his wife, and other people, screaming, fell onto him.
He said he didn’t know what had happened for about 30 seconds. “We all — like me — black out. We don’t know what happened,” he said. Then came a rush of thoughts: “All kind of things. Family members. Am I going to die?”
Someone started shouting that the car might fully tip over if they all moved toward the lower end. So one by one, passengers started climbing out the only open window, Cheng said. Then someone — possibly someone outside the train — opened a door at the end of the car and the remaining passengers rushed out.
Cheng said he and his family members were transported to different hospitals, but he has managed to talk to all of them. He said he knew the conditions of only some of them. His sister-in-law was struck in the arm by an object and had the injury bandaged and put in a sling; his brother-in-law was in the hospital after getting slammed to the ground and pounded by someone falling on top of him; Cheng himself was examined for a stiff neck.
He and two of his relatives were released from the hospital shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday. They were transported to John Webster Little House School, not far from the crash site, which the Red Cross was using as a safe space for victims and for people awaiting news of loved ones. One man in the parking lot of the school said he was waiting for news of a friend, who had not been located.
Once passengers were outside, Amtrak employees told anyone who could walk to move away from the train in case it caught on fire, Cissel said.
“When we got to the street, away from the train, it got more chaotic,” she said. She was feeling nauseous and dizzy, with a bad headache; hours later, she would be told she had suffered a concussion.
She was also worried about her belongings, including her purse and an external hard drive, that she had left on the train. She was frustrated with how long it took to get the medical attention she repeatedly asked for.
First, she said, she was put in a police van with about seven people, then driven around, then transferred to a bus with more people. The bus went to a school, where Red Cross workers had set up a station for the victims.
She was finally taken to Temple University Episcopal Hospital at 1 a.m., she said, just as her daughter and son-in-law were arriving, having driven from College Park to Philadelphia. Shortly before 5 a.m., Cissel left the hospital wrapped in a Red Cross blanket. She said she felt too sick to stand for long and quickly got into her son-in-law’s car.
But she felt well enough to try to make light of the situation. Her first words to describe it: “I was dancing on the ceiling of an Amtrak car tonight.”