beth derail

What the Amtrak 188 crash was like for a survivor (part one)

On Tuesday, May 12, Billy Penn’s Product Director, Beth Davidz, was in Philadelphia for the day for a series of strategy meetings and general team bonding. After a team dinner with founder Jim Brady and developer Chris Montgomery, she headed back home to Brooklyn.

On the way to 30th Street Station, she called Billy Penn’s Designer Jayna Wallace to catch her up on the day. She continued the conversation as she boarded her 9:10 train, Amtrak 188.

Within 20 minutes, the train would derail near Port Richmond in Philadelphia. Of the 238 passengers, eight died as a result of the crash and more than 200 were taken to local hospitals. 

We asked Beth to share her story. This is part one of two.

PART 1: THE CRASH AND THE AFTERMATH

In that moment, I was thankful for the taste of dirt in my mouth. Seconds before, I had accepted death. That acrid taste was life.

As I lay there at the bottom of the dark train car, other sensations flooded in — the sound of passengers, the light of cell phones, the soft feel of rail dust on my bare feet.

I’m alive, I thought.

People want to know what it was like to be a passenger on the ill-fated Amtrak 188 train that derailed Tuesday. (Including many people with TV names like Chris Cuomo, Megyn Kelly and George Stephanopoulos. More broadcast news producers than you’d imagine.)

I told them what I knew in that moment, my experience.  All I understood was that first thought.

I’m alive. I am happy to be.

As a survivor of a tragic event, I have no idea what to do, who I am. I was just a jumble of thoughts and feelings.

As a journalist of a tragic event, I know what to do, who I am.

After the crash, I dusted off not just dirt but my years of training as a reporter.

My need to tell the story has led me around a media circuit. I’ve been on Fox News, CNN, Good Morning America, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, WPIX, in Esquire, in Reuters, etc.

Most people ask what led up to the crash. I’ve answered these questions so many times it feels like a script:

I boarded the train from Philly to New York like I’ve often done before.

I entered at the front of the second car, the first car of coach class.

As this was the quiet car where a library-like atmosphere is required and I was on the phone, I walked through to the third car.

I sat and continued chatting for about 10 minutes.

I ended the call, pulled out my laptop and started working.

Then it happened.

(Here I respond to the questions about if I knew something was wrong.)

No. It didn’t seem fast.

No. It wasn’t late.

No. I didn’t hear a crash.

At the time, up to that point, everything seemed normal.

Suddenly, my laptop slid to the right.

The Crash

I caught it and looked up at the passengers, the windows.

I’m being silly, I thought. We’re just taking a turn. Like a dip on an airplane or a bump in a car, it’s a moment of panic for nothing.

Then the fear became reality.

The car tipped to the right.

The next moments were in darkness and slow motion.

I tumbled through the car like a rag doll having no idea what’s up or down. I’m pummeled on all sides by bodies and debris.

As something slammed against my back and neck, I knew this may be the end.

And then the car stopped. I tasted dirt.

The words now feel mechanic.

The visual of it, the feel of it, still seem real.

I close my eyes, and I see the laptop slide right. It happens again. I’m tumbling through darkness.

The before is the nightmare, it’s the after where I — whoever I am now — begin.

Climbing out

At the bottom of the dark train car as my senses came back, I pushed wreckage off of me and stood. I found footing along the edge of window now filled with earth.

As I looked around, the scene came into a confused focus.

The woman next to me was crying for help, her legs trapped beneath seats and wreckage.  A man was helping her, soothing her with calm tones.

Other passengers were using cell phones to light the dark scene.

One woman pacing the car was saying we need to find the exit, where’s the exit?

I looked up to where I know it’ll be, the other row of windows now 10 feet above me. The height seemed insurmountable.

Help will come, I thought. I need to find my phone, my shoes, my stuff.

I looked down to my right and found a woman instead. She looked up at me, dazed. She was sitting in the window like it was a bathtub, her bottom half covered by dirt and wreckage.

Helping her up, I was rewarded by finding one shoe and my cell phone.

Now to find my laptop, wallet, my bag and other shoe, I thought.

I started to search as I tried to call 911.

Suddenly the smell of smoke hit me. I hung up and looked up. The impossible height seemed suddenly doable.

I watched as people used the remaining attached seats as ladders as they scrambled out the open emergency exit window. I noted each move.

I gave up my hunt for my stuff as panic grew with the smoke.

Smoke meant fire, meant possible explosion. It was time to get out and get out now.

We had no idea what was beyond our dark car but it was away from the smoke.

I rushed toward the makeshift ladder as others did the same. At first, we tried to wait our turn as others struggled along the exit route. The challenge wasn’t physical as much as mental.

As people began to lock in place, I found myself and others scrambling past them.

The need to survive beats civility.

A man suddenly shouted to exit quickly but calmly. It’s the balance we needed between fear and panic, action and thought.

I began to help the woman ahead of me; someone then helped me.

Now on top of the car, I could finally see and begin to understand what happened.

Escaping the wreckage

Behind us, I saw a jagged line of cars. In front of us, crushed metal.

Seeing the state of the first two cars, I realized I was one cell phone conversation away from death.

The fact that I was talking on the phone at the time I boarded the train was the reason I didn’t sit at the front of the second car, the quiet car, where phone conversations aren’t allowed. That arbitrary fact most likely saved my life.

If I had sat in the seats I first considered, I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Most likely, I’d be one of the bodies.

I pushed the thought away.

I’m alive. That’s enough.

On top of the third car, I looked down what was once the roof, pondering a 10-foot jump into a bramble of rails and rocks, with one shoe.

Once again, I decided to wait. I saw a helicopter circling above us and I knew help was coming.

In a moment, my complacency disappeared with a whiff of smoke and a glimpse of a spark. It was now more foolish to wait than to jump.

I began to watch others slide down the 10-foot drop, while other passengers assisted. I yelled for help.

With them below me, I closed my eyes and jumped.

Next: “Part II: THE MEDIA CIRCUIT” where Beth describes her barefoot trudge along the tracks and in between live wires, her trip to the hospital in a police wagon, her phone interviews with multiple, national TV news organizations as she goes through triage at a local hospital and the ensuing media circus, err, circuit. Oh, and she’ll also admit to how she almost killed Billy Penn Community Manager Shannon McDonald’s cat.

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