On May 12, Billy Penn Product Director, Beth Davidz, was on her way home to New York City when Amtrak 188 crashed. We asked Beth to share her story. This is second part of a two-part series. Click here to read “PART 1: THE CRASH AND THE AFTERMATH”
Part II: THE MEDIA CIRCUIT
I sat at a glass table with Erin Burnett in the CNN studio. They adjusted my mic and earpiece and told me to not lean too far because I’d cut off Erin’s shot. We chatted a bit as we waited for the commercials to end. Somehow this all seemed routine. This:
Crossing paths with Wolf Blitzer. Fielding a call from CNN’s Chris Cuomo as I waited at 30 Rock – where I just did an interview at MSNBC with Ed Schultz – to catch my private car to the CNN studios. Finding a paparazzo at my front door.
Before that day, I had never been on national TV, nevertheless TV. But by the time I was sitting in that studio, I had been on almost every major TV network.
As we came back from commercial break, Erin spoke into the camera in front of her. I stared at the screen in front of me and watched the footage. It was the reason I was here, the Amtrak crash the night before, May 12. I couldn’t connect the wreckage to my life, but I had been there, survived it. My way to deal with what happened had led me to that studio.
It all started about 22 hours before as I collapsed to the ground after the 10-foot drop from the top of the turned over third, train car. I knew the nightmare part was over. I had survived, thank God. Now what?
I faced death. I’ll never be the same. It’s too much to understand all at once.
The scene of the crash
As I stood up and hobbled away with one shoe, I took in the scene. Survivors were still clamoring out of my car’s emergency hatch window and sliding down the side that used to be a roof. A woman called for someone still trapped inside. A man landed loudly with a crash. Above, a helicopter circled. To my right, I could see the crumpled metal that used to be the first two cars. No sight of survivors there yet. To my left, those who had escaped wandered along the tracks, unsure of where to go.
Some called loved ones. Some tended the injured. All were in shock. We didn’t know what had happened, where we were. All we knew was we weren’t getting to New York by 10:34 p.m. Our plans, our lives had changed.
Suddenly, a first responder ran by warning us of live wires. He helped the trapped; we waited. I pulled out my phone, which I luckily still had, and began making my calls.
I called my friend, Billy Penn designer Jayna Wallace, whom I’d been talking to before the crash. I just felt like she needed to know. I called my mother and told her not to worry, but I’d been in a train crash. I told her tell my dad, brother and sister. I had no idea what else to say.
— Jayna Wallace ⊙_☉ (@jaynawallace) May 15, 2015
From survival mode to reporter mode
My third call was to one of my local, Philadelphia co-workers, as I needed a ride and a place to stay because I had lost my wallet in the crash. I called Billy Penn Editor Chris Krewson and partway through, I realized I was just as much asking for help as I was giving him news. In all the uncertainty, I could understand this. Although I was rusty as a reporter, I had the instinct from years in newsrooms and j-school.
— Billy Penn (@billy_penn) May 13, 2015
I didn’t know how to be a survivor of a tragic event, but I knew how to be a journalist reporting on one. I grabbed onto this like a lifeline. I started taking pictures with my phone and sending messages to my newsroom via Slack, email and text. My co-workers offered me help. I focused on the story.
— Beth Davidz (@bethdavidz) May 13, 2015
By this time, more first responders had shown up and they were leading us, the less injured, away. Across the gravel, through a wooded patch, along a track, under a live wire, through a chain link fence, down a short service road, I hobbled with one shoe as I recorded what I saw and tweeted.
We came into the neighborhood of Port Richmond. On one side were the watchers. On the other side were the victims. In between was a street full of ambulance and police vehicles. Some, like me, recorded the situation. Most stood dazed. Some were covered in dirt and blood. The more injured were being carried by boards to the ambulance. One woman caught me taking a selfie. She angrily cursed me in French.
Despite my protests that I was fine, a policeman taking in my dirt-covered and battered face told me that I needed to come with him and go to the hospital. The journalist in me didn’t want to leave the scene. The rest of me knew that was ridiculous. I and seven others with minor injuries were put in a police van. As they closed the doors and took off, everyone panicked.
“Turn on the air,” someone shouted.
A woman with her arm in a sling cried, “Help me!”
A man pounded on the plexiglass and yelled, “Air!”
The driver turned it on and everyone calmed down.
As we made our bumpy way to the hospital, the other survivors started talking about what happened, their plans. I answered a call. The media had found me through my tweets and wanted me to be on the air. I said sure, as I wasn’t doing anything else at the moment.
I answered a few questions. At the end, the reporter asked if anyone else would like to speak to the press. I asked. The other survivors looked at me with mild contempt and said no.
We arrived at Hahnemann University Hospital in Center City Philadelphia and were led to the emergency room waiting room. Police and hospital workers began taking down our information. We waited as they took each of our vitals in turn, giving us name tags and labels, and deciding if we needed further care. This was going to be a long night.
The media storm
Luckily I had distraction. Based on my tweets and first interview, I was now fielding emails, texts and calls from various outlets who wanted the story, my story. As a journalist, I was happy to give it. I believe I did the CBS interview as I was getting my vitals checked. Waiting for another step in hospital admissions, I answered a call from Fox News. My dad would be proud, I thought, as I was piped through to the live show. It turns out I was doing a national interview with Megyn Kelly. At the time I had no idea. I was just answering a journalist’s questions while pacing around an emergency room waiting area still with one shoe, covered in grime.
Eventually the hospital staff caught me between interviews and told me I’d need to see a doctor thanks to my head injuries and a heart rate of 150 bpm. They gave me socks and an ice pack and sent me to a room.
Lying in a hospital bed, I began coordinating future interviews, as the one with Fox had sparked a new round of inquiries. I agreed to do the CNN morning show, and they offered me a ride home to New York. My travel options were limited, given I had no money or ID, and one shoe.
I agreed to Fox & Friends to make my father happy. They all wanted to know where and when I could do the interviews. I said I couldn’t really predict my schedule at the moment.
Good Morning America reached out and wanted an exclusive. I said I had made other promises. One of the producers texted me their ratings. I said I’d be interested, but not for an exclusive, and I wasn’t sure about the logistics. I agreed to meet one of the producers, Courtney, at the hospital. She sat next my hospital bed as I was seen by a doctors and answered questions from an investigator. She won me over when she gave me an iPhone power cord, another thing I lost in the crash.
Between the hospital and home
After seeing another doctor, I was released with a prescription of Percocet around 3 a.m.
A saint of a co-worker, Billy Penn Community Manager Shannon McDonald, picked me up and drove me to her house in Fishtown. While I was at the hospital, she prepped her guest room for me, complete with fresh sheets, towels, flip flops, a hoodie, painkillers, bandages, a toothbrush and almost every toiletry you could imagine.
I jumped in the shower, finally releasing my clothes and my skin of a thick layer of black railroad dust. Finally clean, I coordinated a walker for my poor dogs back in Brooklyn. I tried to ignore my phone and get some sleep, but I couldn’t. I was too wired. Shannon’s cat played with my power cords as I finalized the arrangements for the morning shows.
I did all three – first, CNN then Good Morning America then Fox News – at the media line by the crash site.
By 5:15, I was already dressed in my old clothes and new flip-flops and rushing out the door for my ride. On the way out of the guest room, I knocked over the bottle of painkillers. The cat made a dive for them as I shut him out of the room and hastily cleaned them up.
As I left the house, I texted Shannon to thank her and tell her I almost killed her cat.
Soon I was back on the street I was on just hours before. Now in the daylight, it was swarmed by press. After a bit of coordination between the various shows producers, I was mic’d up and put in front of the first camera. As I stared at it, I remembered I’m not good on camera. As the live shot began, I flashed back to my one broadcast class, trying to remember what you’re supposed to do with your hands. As I floundered between positions in an attempt to look natural, Chris Cuomo grabbed my hands in what I assume was a merciful gesture to make me not look neurotic.
The question part was fine, but I got confused again when he looked deeply into my eyes and told me I should take care of myself and get some medical attention. I said yes and reiterated I needed a ride.
Next up was my interview with Good Morning America. I was shocked to learn I’d be interviewed with a former co-worker from the Associated Press, Paul Cheung, who also was on the train. While we were mic’d, we hugged and chatted. For the moment, it was just a quirky coincidence.
We were put in front of the camera, me standing on a box. A disembodied voice began to ask us questions. It’s only later I learned that this was George Stephanopouloulos.
I tried to make my way to Fox News, but by then the media sharks were circling. They smelled my fresh victim blood. They asked me to do their shows next. I told them they’d have to wait their turn. I managed to get to the Fox News, but from there it all became a blur. As I waited for the promised ride, I stepped in front of camera after camera. As a journalist, I understood what was happening; I was the victim soundbite they need. As a person, I was exhausted. I could only tell the story so many times. No matter my emotional distance, it was taxing to relive the horrific moments of the crash again and again.
I know they wanted my words, my emotions and my outrage at whoever or whatever is to blame. As a journalist I saw it. I wonder if a common victim ever does. Even when I walked away, I was swarmed. Most people were just persistent. Some were outright rude. Some were kind, including someone from New York’s WPIX, who offered to get me a private car.
Finally, in the Pix11 car on my way home to Brooklyn, I could relax. I could call my family to truly talk. There were tears (from the car’s driver, even) when I talked to my mother.
Through the rest of the ride I coordinated a few more interviews and checked in on my last-minute dog walker, who was also leaving me keys because I’d lost those in the crash. As the Manhattan skyline came into view, my emotion dam broke and I cried out of sadness and joy.
After doing the night shows for CNN and MSNBC, I did one more show — the morning show for Pix11 — as a thank-you for their ride.
For a day or two, I had some minor celebrity as Facebook, Twitter and email messages flooded in from people who had seen me. I even became famous enough to be named in a conspiracy theory. It seems someone on the Internet assumed I was a “crisis actor” hired by the masterminds who faked the Amtrak crash.
Now, finally, the media circuit is over. The story is last week’s news. For myself and the rest of the Amtrak 188 passengers and their families and loved ones, the real story is beginning.