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Amtrak Survivors Describe Crash

March 17, 1999

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) _ The train lights had been dimmed, there was nothing to see outside the windows and 17-year-old Anna Fulson was preparing to sleep after a long ski trip. Then came a shuddering jolt. A bang. A screech of twisting metal. Finally, flames and cries of pain.

``You could hear screaming,″ Miss Fulson said hours after clambering out of the Amtrak train that struck a semitrailer Monday night. ``You could feel the car derailing. ... It was like in slow motion. Everything was turning over. Luggage was falling. And you were being slammed against the ceiling and walls.″

Miss Fulson was among 15 Mississippi teens and three chaperones returning from a 10-day Canadian ski trip when their train, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, derailed at a crossing 50 miles south of Chicago.

At least 14 people were killed and at least four others were missing and feared dead. More than 100 of the 216 passengers and crew were transported to hospitals.

Many in the ski group were riding in a double-decker car immediately behind the shattered sleeper car where all the dead were found. Leaking diesel fuel ignited and set that car on fire.

After the lead locomotive hit the truck and derailed, the cars behind it also jumped the tracks and began to fold together like an accordion. One locomotive smashed through the sleeper car.

``People were lying on the ground,″ said Melissa Watson, 14, one of the Mississippi group, who was playing cards in the club car when the train derailed. ``You could hear children scream, `Where is my mom?′ You could hear parents scream, `Where are my children?‴

The crash occurred about 9:30 p.m. as many of the passengers heading from Chicago to New Orleans were preparing for sleep. Some were listening to Walkmans; others were gossiping. Many teens had put on T-shirts and sweatpants.

Then it happened.

Bump. Bump. Bang. Bang. A twisting motion. A hurtling crash that flung some of the passenger cars onto their sides.

Then, total darkness.

Someone flicked on a cigarette lighter every few seconds in the toppled teens’ car. Boys in the group forced open an escape window above their heads. They began pulling out the girls, who used the train seats as makeshift ladders.

One girl fumbled around to find her glasses among heaps of clothes and luggage.

``It was like your worst nightmare of what could happen on a train,″ said Christina Bomgaars, 15. ``You can’t imagine the terror of not knowing if you’re above water, if you’re on a cliff, or if you’re going to roll over.″

The boys told them not to panic, but to move fast. And they did.

``We had some idea they were scared our car was going to catch fire soon,″ said Miss Bomgaars, who recounted the night as she sat with her friends in the lounge of Lees Inn, a nearby hotel that had taken in crash victims.

In another car toward the rear of the train, two women from Melbourne, Australia, on a monthlong journey across the United States were watching a movie when the train suddenly screeched to a jarring halt.

Donna Griffiths, a 28-year-old advertising executive, was tossed about in her seat but her passenger car remained upright.

She had minor rib bruises, but started handing out towels to people who were bleeding and blankets to children _ items provided by rescuers.

``There were horrible injuries,″ she said, recounting how she saw some people struggling to breathe, others bleeding profusely and one little boy with part of his ear cut off.

Her friend, Daniella Bauman, a 28-year-old graphics designer, feared another traveling companion might have been killed, but tracked down the woman at a hospital later.

``It was better than winning the lottery,″ said a joyous Miss Bauman. ``We just grabbed each other and hugged. It was such a beautiful moment. After seeing that horrible sight, I was just thinking, `How could anyone survive?′ ″

Many survivors called family and friends to reassure them they were fine.

Miss Bomgaars phoned her parents, near Jackson, Miss., when she arrived at the hospital. She was not injured, though the experience shook her up.

``It makes your so aware of how short life is and how quickly it can be gone,″ she said. ``You don’t have to do anything. You just have to be in the wrong place. God was watching over us.″

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