KENSINGTON - The jagged angle of the train cars, the fallen tree limbs, an ominous drop of the embankment surrounding sections of the track - all seemed to foreshadow tragedy aboard the Amtrak passenger train that derailed yesterday.
But when bystanders and rescue teams reached the muddy ravine surrounding the track, they found dazed passengers who, for the most part, were able to crawl out of the cars relatively unharmed.
Some cried from fear, shock or injury, but many of the passengers broke down because they were glad to be alive.
"Thank God, thank God," said Montgomery County's Rep. Constance A. Morella, who inspected the toppled cars and likened them to mangled pieces of toy train sets.
Among those fearing the worst was Hal Wheeler, 41, who works across the street from the track as manager of Mitch Carr's Auto Service. "I was in shock," he says.
Wheeler was sitting at a desk doing a repair estimate on a Mercedes-Benz when the trees shook as if signaling an impending storm. He bolted out of the shop, shimmied up a ravine to get to the track and helped pull passengers from the wreckage.
He used a small pocketknife to strip away rubber molding from the window of one of the derailed cars so that it could be used as an exit. "It peeled away like a sardine can," he said.
Wheeler was relieved to discover that the scene resembled "a bad traffic accident," and not something worse. If there can ever be good news at a train derailment site, he said, this was it.
"When I walked up and looked at the train, I thought there were dead people," said Wheeler, who lives in Silver Spring. "There were cars dropped 15 or 20 feet down the embankment and a lot of bloody people all over the tracks with contusions, and I thought the worst was yet to come. "
But much of the sobbing he heard came from "a lot of people just happy they had made it out after being sideways" in a train car, he said.
The mechanics at the repair shop are accustomed to the trains' comings and goings. The shop is within a mile of the tiny Garrett Park and Kensington stations, and the employees say the train whistles are a distraction when they are talking to customers on the phone.
But no one at the shop had ever seen or heard anything like yesterday's derailment, owner Mitch Carr said. Until an emergency strikes, he said, it's impossible to predict how people will react.
He said he was proud that his half-dozen or so employees had charged across the street without knowing exactly what they might find.
Some of the workers lifted passengers off the train and then needed to devise a way to get them up and out of the ravine.
"We had to make a human chain of 10 or 15 people to pull people out of the embankment," said mechanic Mike Edwards, 38, of Derwood. "We must have pulled half a dozen people out."
After the passengers had all been removed, the mechanics retired to the shop and watched coverage of the derailment on television, hardly believing what had transpired.