Wreck survivor: 'It was like being inside an exploding bomb'

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Beverly Heebner comforts another passenger shortly after escaping from the wreckage of derailed Amtrak Cascades train 501 on Monday.
Charlie Heebner
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Beverly Heebner keeps another passenger warm while they await medical attention following Monday's Amtrak derailment in Washington. Heebner and her husband, Charlie, who took the photo, were treated for their injuries and released from the hospital later in the day.
Charlie Heebner
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A rescue worker walks past an overturned Amtrak Cascades coach which landed in traffic lanes of Interstate 5 in Monday's derailment.
Charlie Heebner
SEATTLE - Charlie Heebner was like so many other people who boarded Amtrak Cascades train No. 501 on Monday morning: an excited rail enthusiast ready to be part of history. Unfortunately for Heebner, 79, and his wife Beverly, 78, the trip turned tragic when the first train to use the new Point Defiance Bypass derailed at speed near Olympia, Wash., killing three people and injuring dozens more.

Charlie and Beverly rode one of the last scheduled Amtrak Cascades trains to use the Point Defiance route along Puget Sound last week, going from Tacoma to Centennial Station in Olympia and back. On Monday, they planned on making this same round trip, this time on the inaugural run of train No. 501.

The Olympia couple were only a few minutes away from their destination when Charlie started to hear a rapid clicking underneath the train, not far from where the tracks cross over Interstate 5. The Talgo cars the Heebners were riding on started to violently shake and Charlie remembers getting on the ground moments before the car jerked off the right-of-way. Charlie says debris and dirt started to fill the car and it suddenly got dark. A few seconds later, the car came to a stop.

“Everything happened all at once. It was like being inside an exploding bomb,” Charlie tells Trains News Wire. “Our car was just shredded.”

Charlie says after the car came to a stop, he looked over and saw his wife covered in debris. Another man helped dig her out and the three passengers climbed out of the wreckage. The car the Heebners were in ended up coming to a stop on the embankment right next to the Interstate 5 overpass. The couple was transported to an area hospital where they were discharged a few hours later with minor injuries.

Another enthusiast aboard train No. 501, Drew Mitchem, says the wreck “was over in an instant.”

“We were going along and the next thing I know I heard scraping and everyone screaming,” Mitchem tells Trains News Wire.

Mitchem says he remembers feeling the car violently flipping around and then being ejected and landing on the road. “I was laying face down (on the pavement) and I tried to move but it hurt too much so I just stayed still,” he says. He was taken to the hospital within minutes of the wreck and was still recovering from his injuries Tuesday afternoon.

More than 70 people were taken to area hospitals following the wreck, according to the Washington State Patrol. Heebner says it was a hectic scene when he arrived and that the hallways were full of passengers with varying injuries waiting to be seen by doctors.

A day after the derailment, Heebner says he feel fortunate to have survived.

“We were lucky,” he says. “We walked away.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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