'A 10-second . . . ride to hell' Survivors tell of reaching safety after Amtrak's deadliest crash

September 23, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

MOBILE, Ala. -- Michael Dopheide will never forget the scream that cut through the pre-dawn darkness.

"Someone yelled out, 'We're going to die!' " he said. "And that's when I noticed the water."

The water was at his shoe tops and rising fast. But Mr. Dopheide refused to panic.

Armed with only a penlight, his fear and his strength, he bashed a window in the rail car, plunged 6 feet into the murky bayou and then helped 35 others follow that same path away from the worst train wreck in Amtrak history.

"Once I was in that water and out of that car, I knew I would survive," said Mr. Dopheide, a 26-year-old law school graduate from Omaha, Neb. "It was just a matter of hanging on."

It was one small story of heroism and survival after yesterday's early-morning crash of the Amtrak Sunset Limited.

Forty-three people were killed, some of them trapped in a submerged passenger car and others in a burned engine, and 10 were missing in the deadliest wreck in Amtrak's 22-year history. At nightfall, the Coast Guard suspended its search for more bodies until daylight today.

The surviving 159 passengers and crew walked, swam or were pulled to safety. They came from Florida and California and Arizona and Europe. They were retirees and college students and little children, vacationers seeing America the old-fashioned way -- via cross-country train.

And in one frightening moment, just before 3 a.m., they were shaken from sleep and thrown together into a test of survival and endurance.

Some clung to bits of the busted train trestle in the water. Others swam to shore. Still others formed human chains that stayed tight and secure for more than an hour before they could all be pulled on to barges and Coast Guard tugs.

And the only light they had came from the orange flare of a burning locomotive.

"It was a 10-second ride -- a ride to hell," said Alfredo Camedo, a 59-year-old real estate manager from Miami. "All you could feel was the train, hop, hop, hop, and then you felt the crash."

There were 11 cars, seven of which landed in the bayou, just off the Mobile River; one car was totally submerged.

"There was an explosion," said Cliff Hurst, a 54-year-old native of London who was on his first American tour.

"The first carriage off the bridge, the locomotive, was in flames. I was in the car hanging off the bridge. You could see straight through the vestibule to the water."

The passengers reacted quickly and calmly after the crash.

Saved by a suitcase

Joseph Boniface, 21, of New Smyrna, Fla., dropped into the water and reached for a suitcase.

"I didn't think it would float but, what the heck," he said. "I grabbed on to it, and it helped me, and I rode that to the shore. There was a guy with a stick, and I grabbed that stick and pulled the rest of the way."

Elvi Stevens, 59, of Orange City, Fla., on a cross-country trip with her 33-year-old son, Dennis, awoke from her sleep to find her son in her lap.

"We got out of there fast, but I broke my leg going through a window," she said.

Hours later, her left leg wrapped in a cast, chatting inside a makeshift counseling center set up at a downtown hotel, she couldn't stop smiling.

"I am old," she said. "I swim every day, and that saved me. Just praise the Lord I got out of there alive."

Elizabeth and Ted Ellis, of Tucson, didn't think they would survive the crash. They were trapped in their sleeping compartment.

"I couldn't sleep, and I went up to go to the bathroom, and the door slammed and nearly cut off my hand," Mrs. Ellis said. "And then, the bedroom door locked on us. We could look out and see the fire was coming. Finally, we got that door open and got out of that car. We're lucky. Right now I'm between 49 and dead."

James Altosino, 72, of Miami, was on his first Amtrak train trip. He said it would be his last.

'Never again'

"We were in family in San Antonio and we were headed home," he said. "I wanted to see how the train was after all these years. Never again. I was in the water for an hour."

Zsolt Saghy, 22, of Hungary, was near the end of a three-month tour of America. He never figured the most beautiful sight would be the shore of a bayou.

"We were in the third car from the end," he said. "It didn't fall into the water. I saw the next coach burning in the water. Everything was burning. You couldn't see. All you could hear were people screaming and crying."

Esther Lucius, 50, of DeQuincy, La., feared for the safety of her twin sister, who had moved up to the front of the train only moments before the crash.

"She said, 'Esther, there are some empty seats, and I'm going up there to read and relax,' " Mrs. Lucius said. "After the crash, I thought she was dead, and she thought I was dead. Some men helped her out, though. She got hurt and all. But now she's out to the beauty parlor. My God, I just thought this was the end of the world."

Talking of luck

But for the survivors, it wasn't an end. Soaked by warm water, exhausted after hanging on to ropes that pulled them up to barges, they talked of their luck, their families and their homes.

Mr. Dopheide, the law graduate from Omaha, is still trying to figure out where he will begin his career. He has spent the summer on trains, first visiting 22 European countries on a three-month Eurailpass and then taking one last train ride on the Sunset Limited from his sister's home in Los Angeles to Miami.

Early last evening, standing barefoot in a hotel lobby, wiping the soot from his sunburned face, Mr. Dopheide spoke of the family he yearns to return to.

"I don't feel very heroic," he said. "I've heard the word a lot today. But I just feel like everyone else. I just want to go home."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.