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‘There wasn’t even time to panic’: Passenger who escaped derailed Amtrak train finishes journey, by train

Nicholas Hess was among those aboard a train that crashed over the weekend in Montana

Nicholas Hess, a passenger on the Amtrak train that derailed, photographed the aftermath Sunday. (Nicholas Hess)

The passengers on an Amtrak train that derailed in Montana over the weekend were given the option of ending their journey and flying home. Nicholas Hess, who escaped from a rail car that had tipped over, was at a crossroads: East, back home to Atlanta, or continue west.

He chose to go on, arriving Tuesday morning at King Street Station in Seattle to reboard a train for the first time since Saturday’s derailment that killed three people and injured dozens of others. He said he felt as if he was standing on a diving board as he stood on the terrazzo floor of the 115-year-old station waiting to board Amtrak train No. 503 to Portland.

“I know everything is going to be all right but there’s a tiny bit of nervousness,” said Hess, 51.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday continued to investigate what caused the Empire Builder train with 141 passengers and 17 crew members to veer off the track near Joplin, about 200 miles north of Helena, Mont. Donald Varnadoe, 74, and Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, a Georgia couple who had been celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and Zach Schneider, 28, who had been traveling with his wife, were killed.

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The NTSB — which is expected to be on-site for about a week and issue a preliminary report within 30 days — released the track at the crash site to owner BNSF Railway late Monday. The railroad repaired it and reopened the line to traffic on Tuesday.

On the same day a few hundred miles west, Hess boarded a Portland-bound passenger train three days after leaving a crash site strewn with debris about 30 miles from the Canadian border. He chose a seat in coach not because it was near an exit or because it offered greater protection, but because it had a table for his laptop.

Amtrak operates about 300 trains daily. Derailments made up about 2 percent of 86 Amtrak accidents — the vast majority of which do not result in injuries — between 2018 and June 2021, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Hess told himself he had survived a rare occurrence unlikely to happen again.

In the days after the derailment, he was concerned that each bump during the three-hour journey to Portland might build anxiety.

Instead, he encountered a smooth ride and some of the best views of his travels. Out the window was blue water in Puget Sound surrounded by craggy peninsulas with thick patches of pine trees. He raised a cellphone to capture the sight.

The scenic views were a sharp contrast to the clamor and confusion of three days earlier.

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Hess, a software architect, had been planning his two-week trip circling the United States for months. He worked remotely while on the train and used vacation days to stop in cities along the way. He was on the third day of the journey on Saturday when the Amtrak chugged past wheat fields in north-central Montana on the way to Seattle.

Hess was on the Empire Builder’s observation deck when he felt a violent jolt. A chaotic blur and an enormous bang followed an instant later as his laptop went flying. The car tumbled off the track and onto its side.

Hess clung to the leg of the table to stop himself from falling as the windows below him shattered. Bursts of gravel and dust came flooding in.

“It was loud as hell,” he said. “Just incredibly loud, and it got incredibly dusty.”

He said it felt like 20 seconds before the train settled. Dazed passengers asked others about their conditions. Hess told them “we need to get out,” not knowing if the car was stable or if a fire or explosion could occur.

The door at the back of the car was now horizontal. Hess climbed up, then looked down at thick, high weeds that made it difficult to judge the distance to the ground. He braced himself as he leaped about five feet, then noticed a hand beneath the smashed car that wasn’t moving.

“It’s completely arbitrary. I could have chosen to sit somewhere else in the train and died,” he said. “The thing about it is that there’s no sense — no rhyme or reason to who lived, who died.”

From the ground, he helped other passengers down. Some people, he said, were trapped in bathrooms and needed help to be freed. Hess marveled at how calm and helpful everyone stayed.

“There wasn't even time to panic,” Hess said. “At that point, you just had to get out.”

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Hess, who suffered cuts and bruises to his legs, tried to comfort Rebecca Schneider, whose husband was killed. “I just want to see him,” he remembered her saying. “He’s my life.” An older woman sat on a suitcase, her pink sweater covered in dust. She had trouble using her walker, so other passengers carried her.

First responders and volunteers led the injured to a triage area and others to transit buses, where they were taken to a senior community center. Community members brought sandwiches and bundles of quilts. Volunteers and aid workers asked passengers if they had lost medication and replenished their supplies at local pharmacies, Hess said.

Passengers were sorted by their preferred destinations. Hess could have gone back to Georgia or continued on to Seattle and Portland as planned. He boarded a small plane in Great Falls, Mont., that took him west.

From Portland, he planned to ride to San Francisco and Los Angeles before boarding a train home to Atlanta on Oct. 9.

He said he struggles with sadness for the three who died. But cutting his trip short would only allow him to “marinate” in his feelings, he said.

“The derailment was a freak accident,” he said. “There’s literally no way to anticipate or prepare for such things without smothering your life and your opportunities. So I put such things out of my head. We’ve got problems enough in this world without inventing new fears.”

Luz Lazo contributed to this report.