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Journey to a Straighter Life Ended in Tangled Wreckage

February 17, 1996

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) _ They were mostly poor or troubled urban youths, living and learning on hilly farmland where the Potomac River breaks through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Their journey to straighter lives ended in the tangled, fiery wreckage of a commuter train, where eight members of the Jobs Corps center near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were among 11 people unaccounted for and presumed dead.

``We all spend so much time talking about bad kids,″ Mary Silva, acting national director of the Job Corps, said Saturday. ``These are kids who wanted to be good.″

Tim Fowler, 18, one of the Job Corps passengers, said goodbye to his friends as he got off the train at a stop minutes from the crash, went to a fast-food restaurant and, when someone switched on the news, saw the horror unfold.

``I just sat there and started watching it,″ he said.

Many of the more than 100 youths who remained at the center assembled in a gym with their supervisors Saturday, seeking answers and consolation.

``They live together, they train together, they socialize together here,″ said center director Claude Thomas. ``To suffer a loss like this has a tremendous emotional impact upon them.″

Andre Hargrove, 20, had planned to ride the train home to Washington but at the last minute decided to spend the weekend studying at the center.

``I’m grateful. I’m sorrowful for the people that were on the train,″ he said in a halting voice. ``It’s hard to explain.″

Were it not for the long weekend, most of the youths in the crash likely would have stayed at the Job Corps quarters where some 120 people aged 16 to 24 have been enrolled for about seven months of academic studies and training in carpentry, painting, bricklaying, nursing and more.

But officials said 17 were aboard the Maryland commuter train en route to Washington on Friday evening when it was crushed in a collision with Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Capitol Limited.

Nearby houses rumbled from the explosion; fire and smoke rose above the suburban tree line, witnesses said.

The Labor Department, which oversees the Job Corps, listed the missing trainees as Dante Swain, 18, Baltimore; Michael Woodson, 16, Philadelphia; Diana Hanvichid, 17, Woodbridge, Va.; Lakeisha Marshall, 17, Capitol Heights, Md.; Carlos Byrd, 17, Baltimore; Claudius Kessoon, 20, Landover, Md.; Thomas Loatman, 23, Vienna, Va.; and Karis Rudder, 17, Elmhurst, N.Y.

Of the surviving Job Corps trainees, Tyrai Boyer, 16, remained in a hospital in Washington, said Thomas. Three others were treated and released, five got out safely from the wreck at the scene.

The center is run by the National Parks Service overseeing historic Civil War grounds along the wide sweeping curve where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers converge, some 55 miles northwest of Washington.

``Almost all the kids who left (for the weekend) were on that train,″ said Silva, who spent the night at the Harpers Ferry center last fall, ``played bingo with the kids″ and came away impressed with their camaraderie.

``It’s good up there in the mountains,″ said Fowler, a trainee learning building maintenance and working for his high school equivalency and drivers license.

Still shaken, he fell silent whenever he was asked about the loss of his friends.

He got off the train at Rockville, minutes up the rails from the crash. ``We all said bye to each other,″ he said in an interview.

``I went to McDonald’s,″ he said. ``I was sitting at McDonald’s and someone turned on the news. I just sat there and started watching it.″

``They said 5:45″ as the time of the accident. ``I figured the train dropped me off 5:15, 5:20.

``So I just kept watching to see if it was really the train.″

Labor Secretary Robert Reich said Fowler was initially thought to have been among the dead because officials had not known he had gotten off before the crash.

``He is with his mother _ quite shaken, obviously,″ Reich said.

Students built most of the 13 red brick buildings on the 77-acre campus and completed numerous projects in surrounding communities, including sidewalks and an animal shelter in Martinsburg and renovation of a blacksmith shop at Harpers Ferry National Park, according to William Sexton, a center staffer.

The Job Corps was set up as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty in the mid-1960s and it has gone through swings of expansion and contraction by administrations divided on its effectiveness.

Last year, it survived as a national program in an effort by congressional Republicans to turn most job programs to the states.

Reich, who visited the crash site, said later: ``This is a terrible tragedy under any circumstances. That there were young people who were killed makes it all the more poignant.

``These young people had the deck stacked against them, and yet had made a decision to make something of their lives.″

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