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Amtrak crash passengers recall routine ride, then chaos

For Jeremy Wladis, like millions of others who live in the Northeast, Amtrak is just part of the commuting routine.

A frequent traveler between New York and Washington, Wladis likes to get up and walk the length of the train every hour or two.

On Tuesday evening, he had just walked from the last car, where he was seated, to the front and then back again when he was thrown from his seat and out of his routine.

“It was complete chaos,” he said during a phone interview.

One minute he was in his seat, the next, he was wedged under it. He looked up to see two women who had been catapulted into the luggage rack. He was unharmed, but even in the darkness he could not believe the extent of the damage when he finally got out of the train.

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“It was like a pretzel,” he said.

Wladis was one of 243 people on board Northeast Regional Train 188 when it crashed just outside Philadelphia. Seven people were killed in the accident, and dozens more were injured. In interviews and in messages sent out through social media, passengers who survived the crash described scenes of sudden horror and injury, as a routine ride turned deadly, with train cars tumbling off the tracks and passengers tossed like dolls.

Inside the train cars, passengers described chaos and panic.

“The trains went dark and suddenly everything started shaking around,” said Paul Cheung, an Associated Press manager who was a passenger, told the news service. “People were panicking; stuff was everywhere.”

Joan Helfman, a passenger interviewed for a video by The New York Times, said she had dodged a huge red suitcase that came flying at her.

“Our train was actually on its side so it pushed me to the side of the train,” Helfman said. “I saw so many head injuries and bloody faces.”

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As the train cars jolted and tumbled to their sides, many passengers feared for their lives.

“It felt like it was in slo-mo because you’re not sure if this is it,” said one woman interviewed by Reuters. “And then when we finally stopped and I knew that I was no longer being kind of thrown around, I tasted dirt. It never tasted so lovely in my life, just to know that you were fine.”

Another passenger, a woman traveling with her son, said that the train car had filled with smoke. After she and her son escaped, he returned to help others out. As more passengers emerged, she said, it was too dark to see.

“As they came out I at least tried to help them and comfort them,” she said.

Janelle Richards, an NBC News producer, was traveling home to New York after visiting family and friends in Washington. She was seated in the rear car listening to music, texting friends and “zoning out.” It was an Amtrak trip she had made many times, since her parents live there.

“As we were riding along I felt the impact and heard the noise and was thinking: ‘What just happened? Did this train really just crash?’” she recalled. “My initial thoughts were: ‘This is surreal. I am in shock. I cannot believe an accident just happened.’”

“Immediately after the crash,” Richards said, “I looked to my left and there was a woman in the aisle and she had blood streaming down her face. She was lying on the floor.”

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Her train car stayed upright and Richards went to the back of the car to exit. Other passengers were able to open it enough so people could squeeze through.

“Passengers that were already out were helping to pull us through,” she said.

Jillian Jorgensen, 27, a reporter with The New York Observer, was also on her way home to New York after covering Mayor Bill de Blasio in Washington. She took a seat in the quiet car. All seemed normal — including a woman nearby who scolded two other women for laughing and talking. Jorgensen was drinking red wine, having finished working, when the train approached a sharp curve to the left.

But she never felt the train move left. Instead, she said, it took a hard bank right, as if missing the curve on the track. There was a lot of shaking.

“I could tell it was coming off the tracks,” Jorgensen recalled from her home in Jersey City on Wednesday. ”I bounced around a lot in the dark.”

She was thrown from her aisle seat across the train.

“People were yelling. I was yelling. Time slows down. You see what’s happening, but there is nothing you can really do.”

The first thing Jorgensen saw were scattered beams of light in the dark — illuminated smartphone screens, wielded by passengers, some injured, who had somehow still held onto their devices. Some passengers called 911.

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After scrambling out of the train alone or with help, the injured — most of them — were taken to hospitals and then released. Some were sent back to New York Penn Station in buses, where they arrived looking tired, with Red Cross blankets around them.

Wladis, who owns AG Kitchen and also Fuel Pizza, said part of the shock of Tuesday’s accident was that nothing seemed unusual in the moments before the crash.

“There was no warning,” he said. “Nothing.”