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Young Survivor Describes Terror Aboard Capitol Limited

February 20, 1996

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ As the crewman raced through the speeding train shouting, ``All Aboard! All Aboooooard,″ 19-year-old Damian Benitez knew he’d better pray for a way to get off.

``One girl said, `Is he playing or something?′ But oh, man _ I knew better,″ said Benitez, one of six survivors of 14 Job Corps trainees caught up in Friday night’s fiery train crash north of Washington.

Tired, bruised, but still incredulous, Benitez described in his South Philadelphia living room Monday how he escaped the collision between a Maryland Rail Commuter train and Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Capitol Limited.

Moments before the crash, a member of the local’s crew ran headlong through the first MARC car shouting ```All aboard!′ _ like it was time to get on the train,″ Benitez said. ``He must have panicked or something. The other (crewman) yelled `Take cover!′ Then he dove on the floor.″

Both crewmen, and a colleague, died along with eight Job Corps trainees on the MARC train. Maryland’s chief medical examiner, who handled the remains because the accident happened in the Washington suburb Silver Spring, Md., said Monday six Job Corps people and two crewmen died not from crash injuries but from the fire and smoke that followed.

Benitez withstood the impact, then fought his way through the chaos of the shattered rail car, squirmed through a ruptured steel wall and under derailed cars, then slipped and sprinted past roaring flames to safety.

``When the train hit us there was an incredible explosion, and then we were sliding backwards, slamming from side to side,″ said Benitez. ``I was on my knees grabbing a seat, and squeezing and squeezing for my life.″

Moments earlier, the commuter train had been sailing along to Washington, passengers settled into sleep or their headphones.

Benitez was excited, chatting happily, taking his first home furlough since he joined the strictly disciplined federal Job Corps in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., six weeks ago.

He was relaxing on the train with rap star Scarface in his Walkman, when an odd tingle made him stand and glance through the open door of the control booth _ just as the two engineers recoiled in shock, he said.

``It looked like they’d seen a ghost,″ said Benitez, cupping his face in his hands.

Already on his feet, Benitez pounded down the train’s rocking aisle toward the exit. Around him, passengers slipped to the floor and crouched or remained in their seats, frozen in shock.

Smoke quickly filled the car. Doors wedged shut. Windows could not be broken.

``I was trying to peel back the door,″ Benitez said. ``People were screaming, and I could hear `Boom...Boom...Boom.′ People were trying to beat the windows out, but they wouldn’t crack.″

Benitez saw a flash of white through jagged steel and realized he was seeing the snow outside. He made his way, stopping to help Job Corps friends Rodney Crawford and Richard Brown.

Together, the three ran through fiery eruptions and crawled under a snarl of derailed cars into ``the open arms of people running out of an apartment building.″

``Richard was trying to go back, but I was pulling him. The fire was too high _ it was suicide,″ he said.

``We just ran for those open arms.″

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