Amtrak 188 passengers recall chaotic scenes as train derailed: ‘It felt like being inside of a dryer’

A crime scene investigator looks inside a train car after a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia.

A crime scene investigator looks inside a train car after a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (Joseph Kaczmarek/AP Photo)

It’s a well-known ritual for people in this area — hop on Amtrak for a meeting in New York City or Washington, D.C., and then on the trip back, try to unwind. Read a book, swipe an iPad, do a puzzle. For 243 people on Amtrak 188 Tuesday night, that quiet scene transformed in an instant to chaos, pain and panic.

David Hayes, music director of The Philadelphia Singers, had just finished rehearsing the group for its final concert this weekend. He was riding Amtrak back home to New York, a commute he’d done thousands of times. He was in the café car having a beer.

Conductor David Hayes leads a rehearsal with the Philadelphia Singers before boarding the Amtrak train that derailed in North Philadelphia. Hayes survived with minor injuries. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It seemed like it started banking, which was not unusual going around the curve,” he said. “But then the banking got more severe, and we realized something was very, very wrong. Our car flipped over on its side and started grinding into the embankment. After it all stopped, it was very, very dusty. There were not very many people in the café car. There was only about four or five of us. Everyone was remarkably calm.”

Hayes walked away from the accident, suffering minor bruises.

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Carol Thomas Cissel, a Unitarian-Universalist minister from New Jersey, was coming back from visiting her 1-year-old grandson in Maryland when she heard an odd sound.

“If you think of dropping a can of soup or something down a flight of stairs, some bump-bumps,” she recalled.

The rail car she was in leaned far to the right, then it fell, and rolled … and rolled.

“It felt like being inside of a dryer. If you were like a load of laundry. Like it was rolling over. And when it stopped, I was looking up at chairs,” she said.

She ended up OK, with a concussion. Cissel says she’s heading back to Maryland, to recuperate with her family.

“I’m with my daughter today, and we just keep looking at each other and looking at the TV and saying, man, it looks like a movie, like it’s not real. But you were in there.”

Sam Kille of Mineola, New York, ended up not being on the train, but he had planned to be.

Kille, a father of two who works in veterans services, was in Washington, D.C., for a day of meetings. He’d bought a ticket on the Amtrak 188. But his meetings ended earlier than planned.

“I arrived at the Union Station at 5 o’clock, and I figured, I might as well try to get home early.”

So he changed his ticket to the 6 p.m. Acela train. He got home, and he learned about the derailment through calls and texts from friends who were worried about him.

Kille barely slept, and he was shaky all day. He says he’s relieved, but he’s also sad for the victims.

“At the same time, part of me feels guilty that I wasn’t on the train,” he said.

He keeps wondering what he would have done, if he’d been in the accident. And he’s waiting to hear about some of his colleagues who were.

“I’ve just gotta think that for some reason I was lucky to not be on that train,” he said. ” I don’t know if it was divine intervention but obviously while I’m still around on this earth, I’ve got a lot to do to repay fate.”

Laura Benshoff, Peter Crimmins, and Marielle Segarra contributed to this report.


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