I Survived an Amtrak Train Wreck

Just moments after escaping a tragic accident, the writer learns she's pregnant—and quickly discovers the razor-thin edge between love and loss.
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I was in a train wreck, exactly nine months before my daughter was born. It took me a few days to remember after the fact that the phrase “train wreck” is also often used as a metaphor. Through a blur of concussion and gratitude, I wondered casually if I would ever use that particular turn of phrase again. Because nothing is a train wreck except a train wreck. Nothing is like hundreds of tons of steel flying off the rails at 102 miles per hour. Nothing is like 243 bodies at the mercy of the laws of physics, immutable and indifferent.

I remain agnostic about the existence of a divine presence in the universe, yet I was uncharacteristically certain there were no guardian angels aboard Amtrak 188, only luck. I was unlucky to have chosen the 7:10 p.m. train back to New York on my way home from a conflict resolution conference in D.C. nearly two years ago. And I was unlucky to have chosen the second car, which flipped almost upside down. I was lucky to have been on the left side of the aisle not the right. Unlucky to have sustained rib and hand fractures and a concussion. Desperately, unspeakably lucky that the millimeter-long cluster of cells I did not yet know I was carrying inside my uterus remained there, safely protected within layers of tissue and fluid, seemingly impervious to the chaos of that night. No divine force chose to crush the woman across the aisle under her seat so she could barely breathe. And no divine force let us both live.

Yet how divine to live.

My mother, who is not a particularly religious person, listened to my pontifications in disbelief. “But your baby is alive!” she reminded me. “How can you say no one was looking out for you?”

It is so easy to imagine a different outcome, one in which my guardian angel had too much on her plate that night. After the crash I had a deep purple bruise the size of a grapefruit on my thigh. In time it left a pale shadow and a slight divot I can still make out a year later. Had that impact been just ten inches higher, my story might have been only that of a traumatic accident from which I’d been lucky to escape alive. A story with a wistful epilogue that would start with a trickle of blood a few days later. Not really a shock, considering the circumstances, but that wouldn’t have eased my grief. Instead, I write this as my 3-month-old daughter sleeps in the next room.

Is it possible to express, in secular terms, my tremendous gratitude? Is it possible to grasp both the joy and the sorrow of that night?

Whoa, big turn, I thought to myself while munching the peanut M&Ms I had recently purchased in the snack car. No, not just a turn, here we go. I braced myself as I flew out of my seat into the aisle.

I would soon learn that the train had derailed at 102 miles an hour on a 50 mph curve on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

There was a violent wrenching and the sound of screeching metal. I don’t remember landing. The car was quiet. I waited. I pushed up from my stomach and determined I was alive, that my body still followed my instructions. It was dark. The air was gritty. There was no floor, only angles. Dust and upholstery floated overhead. A thin strip of emergency lights lay loose on the shredded carpet.

I only discovered how bad it was from the voices.

A single voice, moaning. And another. Slowly, the car came alive, taking stock of its gruesome reality. Panic rose in my throat. Tragedy was unfolding around me. I couldn’t see, but I could hear it.

“Help!” cried a woman’s voice, “I can’t breathe!”

She was right across from me. I found her trapped under a row of upside-down seats. I tried. Again and again I tried.

“Help me, help me, help me!”

We were trapped. I tried to breathe the toxic air slowly to calm myself, and searched desperately for an exit. I located a small split in the train car wall. I could see the sky. Fresh air. A wave of relief.

Another voice screamed and groaned.

“It’s my leg,” she said. “It’s broken; I’ll need a pin in it. I’m a doctor,” she explained.

She groaned again. I put my hand on her back. It didn’t seem to help.

“I just need to get up,” exclaimed a man’s voice.

He was on top of someone else, I think, though I could hardly tell in the smoky darkness.  We tried, but every time he sat up the pain was explosive. I eased him back down.

“I can’t breathe!” cried the first voice again.

I tried and tried.

“You’re not going to be able to do it,” said the man’s voice, gentle this time.

Someone shined a cell phone flashlight on us briefly. The man’s eyes were wide and scared, in contrast to his calm voice.

I moved away. Much to my surprise, someone held up my backpack. I texted my wife and my mother.

“Some bruising but okay,” I wrote. “Battery dying will be in car for several hours, don’t worry.”

My left hand throbbed. Well, maybe it’s broken. Oy, not again.

I have a habit of fracturing my wrist—ice-skating, stairs—so I didn’t think much of it. I prodded a giant lump on my head. Huh; I guess that’s worth a trip to the hospital once we get out. I am so lucky.

Someone had called 911. We waited.

Suddenly I heard the loud whir of a saw grinding against metal. They’ve come.

A fireman came through a window in what was now the top of the car.

“I need everyone who can walk out of this car. Women and children first!” he said briskly as he hoisted people up through the window.

It didn’t seem the moment for a political discussion, but I waited. To exit I would need to step over a man I hadn’t seen before. His whole body was splattered with blood and his breathing was rapid. In a moment of sheer stupidity, I asked him if he was okay.

I could detect just an edge of sarcasm in his whimper.

“Women and children!” exclaimed the voice.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as I stepped over his body.

I struggled through the window. The fireman lifted me up with an ease that surprised me, and another pair of strong hands pulled me through from above.

“Can you climb down?”

A long ladder stretched to the ground.

“Yes. Thank you. Thank you.”

I had never fully appreciated …

And just like that I was out. And the trapped people were still trapped.

I looked back once at the giant cars strewn on the ground. Holy shit. I don’t know what I thought it would look like, but it caught me by surprise.

We made our way on a gravel path through some bushes and onto the streets of North Philly. A giant crowd had gathered. People from the neighborhood offered cell phones and bottles of water. An hour or so later I was in the back of a cop car, sirens blaring as we careened to the nearest hospital.

“Do you think we’ll get to the hospital alive?” a fellow passenger asked me.

She rolled her eyes, dark against her pale, soot-streaked face. I grinned sympathetically and shrugged. We made it to Aria Health Frankford and I remembered what I’d been obsessing about all day. My period was arguably a day late. I might be pregnant. I hoped I was pregnant. I shouldn’t have X-rays. The triage staff told me to go pee in a cup.

“There are no false positives!” a nurse insisted. “You’re pregnant. Congratulations!”

Congratulations. The hospital TV showed the wreckage of the crash under glaring lights with a vividness that was mercifully absent from my own memory. I had left behind so many whose fates remained unknown to me as I lay in my hospital bed, contemplating the new life I had dreamed of for years. Later I would scan the photos of the dead to see if I recognized anyone.

I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

“Can we turn off the TV?” I requested.

Seeing my tears, the doctor stuttered an awkward question presumably intended to find out if the pregnancy had been an accident. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Lesbian pregnancies are painstakingly planned. For five months I had fantasized about taking a pregnancy test in the comfort of my own home and waiting in giddy anticipation with my wife, Sarah, for the three minutes to pass. It was just like I’d dreamed, except alone, in a hospital bathroom in North Philly. And at about 2 a.m., I got to share the news with Sarah in the ER waiting room, two feet from a guy having a nasty comedown. 

“It took a while to sink in,” I would tell my friends lamely regarding the beautiful news I received that terrible night. They would nod understandingly, despite my complete failure to communicate the strangeness and heartbreaking urgency of the experience.

Every moment, some endure tragedy while others celebrate blissfully or even willfully unaware of the suffering of their neighbors. Perhaps we should all strive to hold more in our hearts, but no one consciousness could ever master the multiplicity of truths that make up human experience. The events of that night were beyond comprehension and they always will be. Yet now, after the birth of Gabrielle Rae, I might have just slightly more of a grasp on it.

As a parent, one has the privilege of witnessing a strange miracle. A collection of paradoxes come to light. No life and suddenly a new life in the world. A person so familiar and so beloved, whose features were unknown only minutes before. Joyous love and a gut-wrenching fear of loss.

The cycle of life and death was somewhat theoretical to me before I saw our baby come into existence. Then I knew more intimately the joy of a new life and the reality of death, with its improbable, yet brutally possible immediacy. I had no wish to hasten death, yet I prayed fervently that when it came, my daughter would be alive to witness my passing and not I hers. Strangely, I must hope that each day my daughter grows, every joyous milestone, brings us closer to that moment; I cannot contemplate the alternative.

One year ago, eight people died all around me, and my dream came true. In their memory I strive to hold both truths in my heart.

 

Coda: Only a few months into 2017, multiple Amtrak train derailments have made the news, though none were nearly as catastrophic as the Philadelphia crash of 2015, which might have been prevented through the activation of an automated speed control system. If President Trump's proposed federal budget were to take effect, rail travel infrastructure would suffer much further. Despite his promises of large-scale infrastructure investment, Trump's proposal would reduce transportation funding by 13% and cut all federal funding for Amtrak's national network trains, eliminating all Amtrak service for 220 cities, according to a statement by the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Beyond the drastic service cuts, are more train wrecks in our future?

 

Jessica Baen is a Staff Research Associate at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. She has worked previously for several NGOs in the fields of human rights and conflict resolution. Her writing has been published in Gay City News, The Guantanamo Lawyers (NYU Press), and Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism.
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