Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Day I will Never Forget

(NOTE: The original version of this story was written July 24, 2011, a month after the accident and has appeared in my blog before. Monday marks the second anniversary of this awful collision.)-----

The bruises took over a year to heal. I have permanent scars, inside and out. Even today, if I rub my skin the wrong way, putting on lotion or toweling myself off, I feel the deep pain. The nightmares don't haunt me each and every night, like they did at first, but they do visit on occasion. Just last February, I woke up screaming in my husband’s face. Sometimes in my dreams, I'm in a fire and I see things burning. I scream, but there is no sound. There should be a sickening howl of horror, but in my dreams the sounds of my cries are inaudible.

A little past one in the morning on Friday, June 24, 2011 my family boarded the Amtrak, California Zephyr in Provo, Utah . We were on the way to my niece, Valerie's, wedding in the Bay Area, and our final destination was Emeryville, California, home of Pixar Studios. I had frequent traveler points that I wanted to use. Since major surgery three weeks before, my doctor said I could travel, but to keep walking to prevent blood clots. My pregnant daughter, Kadi, had to get up frequently, as well. This seemed to be the ideal way to travel under the circumstances. I'd taken my daughters Kadi and Marie on the train cross country when they were middle school age and now I wanted my son-in-law Johnny to see how fun train travel could be. (My husband had to remain home for work that weekend.)

The train was three hours behind schedule. When it finally arrived, the four of us walked up the stairs to the upper portion of the train and settled into our seats as quietly as we could, putting our luggage overhead and just behind Kadi's and Johnny's seats. There was a little space or "bulkhead" between the stairs and where they sat. Marie and I sat across the aisle from them, covering ourselves with a quilt I'd labored to make ten tears before. Kadi covered herself and Johnny in blankets, her round, pregnant belly filled with her first child, showing under the material. She was due to have him in August.

It was late morning in the Nevada desert. We ate some snacks and went to the observation car. We talked to each other and I met some Amish families there. I was looking forward to taking my family to lunch on the dining car. I pictured us eating a delicious meal just as we were climbing in elevation, entering the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We walked back to our seats. Then, I went to the first floor with a magazine and read it for a little while.

About 11:20 am I made my way back up the steps, almost at the top, when there was a boom, then a loud metallic popping noise and an incredible jolt. I was holding onto the railing, but my body was flung back and forth. In a fraction of a second, the side of our train car opened up. I stepped to my seat by the top of the stairs afraid of what I might see. I braced myself on the back of the seat, a dead woman in the aisle at my feet. I saw my family facing forward, looking dazed. People said later, that victims were screaming, but I couldn’t hear anything at first. Maybe my heart was pounding so loud, I don’t know.

Suddenly, the engineer applied the train brakes. I was whipped forward but managed to remain standing, holding onto the seat beside me as more metal came at our seats and stopped short. Then a hot, percussive force flew around me and through me. I saw the sky through part of the missing roof just above our heads, "Dear Lord," I said, "Please, keep us safe!" I felt the hot dust and debris fly past my face as the train began to slow, screeching against the metal rails.

When we stopped, I could still hear the sound, but quickly realized it was the voices of passengers crying and moaning. When the train was completely still, I grabbed Marie's arm. She was to my left, near the side of impact and it wasn't even a half dozen feet in front of her where a gaping hole was ripped into the side of our train car. I tugged. Marie was pinned. She extricated herself and I told her to go out the exit below. Another twelve inches and she would have been pinned so tightly, perhaps she couldn't have gotten out. Maybe she would have lost her legs. I turned to my right. Kadi was screaming, "Where's Marie? Johnny? Johnny?!" I looked at my daughter and son-in- law. There was a large strip of metal over their heads, maybe five feet long and six inches in width. It was twisted and arched over their heads. Another six inches lower, they would have been decapitated. Kadi's head was covered in blood. Her face and neck were covered with the yellow, bubbly, fatty tissue from under someone's skin. I could soon tell that this was not from my daughter. I said, "Honey, we need to get out. Please, don't look at anybody or anything. Just get out, now!" She had to crawl over the seat before her, where a corpse remained partially upright. She crawled over the dead woman, then back towards me, stepping over another body in the aisle. This victim had red-blonde hair and was facedown. My next thought was Johnny. He seemed dazed. His nose was bleeding terribly. I couldn't see any teeth for all the blood in his mouth. He stepped into the aisle.

I saw a baby seat on top of the metal that had nearly ended their lives. There was no baby in it. Baby! My mind went back to my daughter's unborn child, then flashed back to the present. On the other side of the stairs behind us, an Asian woman looked at me, pleading, holding another woman on the floor. I said, "I'm sorry, I have to help my family!"

I walked my girls down the steps and out to the field, through the brush and sharp weeds. I found a little green vegetation and told them to sit. I could see fire from the train car in front of ours. Where was Johnny? I walked through the bushes and tumbleweeds, back to the train in search of my son-in-law. Again, I boarded the train. Before I got back on, Johnny had taken the pulse of the Asian woman in front of Kadi's seat. He said she stared blankly into space. She was dead. When I got back on he was helping another woman, who'd been wearing shorts. Johnny took off his shirt and was pressing it against the wounds on the woman's legs as a man held her. The skin was peeled back from her shins. I said, "Johnny, Kadi is going to need you." He wanted to help the countless wounded, but left reluctantly, no shirt, no shoes, into the hot desert.

Black smoke was entering our train car. I grabbed my mini-cooler. There was ice in there. I wanted to apply it to Johnny's and Kadi's injuries. An elderly black woman was crying, "I can't walk, I can't move!" The smoke was getting thick. I said, "Honey, you're going to have to get out of here. I don't care if you scoot off the train, you're getting out, NOW!" I took her elbow. She was wild-eyed with fear. I walked her down the steps. As soon as I saw that she was safely away from the train, I reached for the ice in my cooler. Looking down at my hands I saw the only piece of our luggage I'd grabbed. No material thing was more important than my family, so leaving the rest of my stuff wasn't a problem. However, I didn't see my cooler: there in my grasp, I saw my purse. I hadn't snatched my mini-cooler after all! I needed that ice! What could I do? There was blood on Johnny's face and on Kadi's scalp. I needed to stop their swelling and tend to their injuries.

Then I realized something vital: I had a cell phone. Making my way out to the field, scraping my legs along the branches again, I called David. "Someone bombed our train!" I told him. "The four of us are alive; we'll be okay. I'll call you and tell you more later." I finished by telling him I loved him and not to worry. Then I called my sister, Margie, telling her the same thing, adding that if we made it to the wedding, we'd be late and not to tell the bride anything other than we were having trouble in our travels. As I spoke, the wind shifted. I guided Kadi and Marie and someone that had joined them, a young teen named Marissa Knox, away from the smoke. I walked back to the train. I knew people were hurt, but I wanted rescuers to be aware that I had a pregnant daughter in the field. I saw Johnny sitting by the train, looking shell-shocked, and told him to go out to Kadi. At some point he made it out there.

I found a conductor. Another Amtrak employee handed him a white rag. The first man had a phone or walkie-talkie. He tried to dial out. It was then that I realized he was missing fingers and blood quickly soaked the cloth. I said, "My daughter is seven months pregnant. Could you help us, please?" I later found out that upon impact, this man had been flung out of the train. He regained consciousness in the sand, several yards from the track. His co-worker, Laurette Lee, was found crushed under a door. Another conductor brought out ice and water bottles. People from along the highway came to our aid. I took two large chunks of ice and some water bottles for my family. I told Johnny to put the ice up to the front of his face and I held some over Kadi's head, telling her to hold it on her wound. Marissa was frantic, crying that her grandma and auntie were dead. She was certain. I told her not to worry, they were probably alive and on the other side of the train, or walking around looking for her. The smoke shifted and we moved again. It was getting harder to find some soft place to sit. A young man named Julian took the sandals from his own feet and gave them to Johnny.

I gathered our little group together and we prayed that help would come soon, that the injured would be healed and that the Lord would gather the dead quickly into His loving arms. A woman came over from several cars away to comfort Marissa and pray with her. Hundreds of passengers were slowly making their way a half mile or so to the highway. The critically injured remained along the tracks or in the field. A white pick-up truck drove toward us, carrying firefighters. They'd arrived on the roadway, having been on a call to a nearby brush fire. Two ladies driving in the desert offered their truck for the rescue efforts since the fire trucks were too heavy for the soft sand. The firefighters strapped Kadi onto a stretcher and began to pile wounded into the pick-up, Kadi and Johnny in the bed, Marie and I in the back seat. Many others were put in with us and driven to the road.

At a point, the highway, which ran parallel with the tracks most of the way, intersected with the rails. There, at the intersection, were the mangled remains of a truck, strewn in pieces. It wasn't a bomb! A truck had broadsided our train! My mind began to think. A truck - shouldn't we have derailed, buckled like an accordion at the least? Two miracles! Many more people could have died. The seats in front of ours on the train - they were wiped out. The metal had stopped just in front of and over my family. There was nothing, NOTHING to stop it. Yet it stopped! A body landed before my feet. It could have struck me but didn't. My family and I could have died - another miracle. We stepped out of the pick-up truck. I turned to the tracks. Our train car and the one in front of ours were fully engulfed in fire, black smoke rising in the air and surrounding the metal framework, some bodies still trapped inside. Yet the field didn't catch aflame, despite the heat and the sparks. That would have finished off the survivors and rescuers; yet another miracle.

The rescuers! They were arriving: more firefighters, helicopters, ambulances, passersby with water, food and blankets. Someone had given our little group a small white blanket, and it was just the right size for us to shade Kadi and a Korean woman with a severe head injury. This lady was also on a stretcher. Marie and I held the blanket over our two most wounded travelers. I patted Johnny's shoulder. Kadi was crying and said she felt sick. A firefighter agreed with me that we should tilt Kadi a little to the side in case she vomited. I put her at a gentle angle. Moments later, Kadi and Johnny were put on separate ambulances. I didn't know where they were going, but I said somehow we'd be back in contact that evening. I didn't know how we'd manage, but I had to say something.

After they were squared away, I felt it. My abdomen was expanding. It felt like a tight water balloon. I mentioned it to a trooper and suddenly I was put on an ambulance. A man claiming to be a Navy doctor came in, poking and prodding my belly, asking me if I felt any pain. First of all I figured I must have hit my head harder than I originally thought. I was puzzled. "Navy? What?" and found out there was a navy base IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT. Who would have thought? The exam continued. I said, "I'm still numb from my hysterectomy!" He poked again and that one hurt! He said something about rigidity and put me on a Seahawk, the Navy version of a Blackhawk helicopter. Despite my objections about the helicopter ride, I was strapped in. I wouldn't let Marie out of my sight and begged them to let her come along. They put a helmet and goggles on her and we flew through the skies to Renown Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Every time we hit turbulence I thought we were all going to die. Now I was hurting and frightened.

Not too long afterward, we landed and the sun was in my eyes again, the heat scorching my face. Soon I was looking up at lights and felt air conditioning. We were in the hospital triage in the emergency room. I heard a baby's heartbeat over a monitor. The emergency room staff cut my shirt from my body. Some personnel spoke to each other and before I was taken to have a scan, one of them said that the sound was the heartbeat of my grandson. He was alive! The scans showed that I hadn’t torn my spleen and wasn’t bleeding internally. The images did indicate however, that I was badly bruised inside my abdomen. Yet I was in one piece and thankful!

Later that evening, alone, my imagination played cruel tricks on me. I thought that maybe I was just telling myself that my family was alive. Maybe they'd perished and my mind was just trying to comfort me. As soon as the neck brace came off, I was up, searching for my kids. I found Marie. They'd X-rayed her lungs and one knee. She still had black soot around her nostrils. I looked down at my hands. My nails were black with oil and ash. There was blood splattered on my pants, blood on my shoes. Marie and I were released and put up in the Renown Hotel, under the same roof as the hospital. Later that evening we visited Kadi. She had to be under 24 hour monitoring in the obstetrics ward. Johnny was staying with her, crutches by his bedside. His leg was badly damaged, but the bones were not broken, neither was his nose. The blood had been cleaned from his face. He still had his front teeth, but they'd been pushed back on impact which is why I couldn't see them behind the congealing blood. The emergency room doctor moved them back into place. It also turns out that his cheekbone was cracked.

That night, as Kadi and Johnny slept in the hospital room, Marie and I took our showers at the hotel, washing the grime and blood from our bodies. As Marie walked out of the shower, clothed in a T-shirt provided by the hospital, I saw her legs for the first time since the accident. My youngest child's limbs were so purple, they were nearly black, with deep bruises, her knees swollen and misshapen. There was very little white skin. I was horrified, but tried to keep my shock inside. I was grateful that Marie had worn jeans on the trip. The people wearing shorts had deep cuts to their shins and knees, like the woman that Johnny tried to aid when he placed his shirt over her damaged legs. Those jeans had saved my baby's legs.

The next couple days were spent talking to the National Transportation Safety Board and Amtrak. The employees at the hospital were so compassionate and good to us. The local people of Reno, so kind. I was able to reach some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who came to our aid, taking Marie and me to Walmarts for essentials, providing blessings as they laid their hands upon our heads, calling down the powers of God to comfort and heal us.(The dentist says Johnny might still lose some of his teeth, but we will faithfully believe the blessings’ words and hope for the best.)

There were so many wonderful people that I would have liked to have met under better circumstances. These were fellow passengers and other people who came to our aid. There were some who sadly didn't survive. Six people died in the train wreck. Laurette Lee, a well-liked conductor, age 68 was one of them; she'd been crushed as the engine of the rock hauler plowed into the train car in front of us. As the trailer struck our car, Marissa's auntie and grandmother also perished: Karly Anne Knox, age 18, and Francis Knox age 58. They died on impact, their bodies flung to the center of the train toward the aisle. Thirty-four year old Cheuy Ong died in front of Kadi. The woman had to be identified by DNA and dental records. The name of the last body is still unknown. Perhaps this person was going to surprise someone somewhere down the line. Maybe no one knows this passenger was coming out to see them. Maybe the friends this person said farewell to assume a choice was made to remain with the loved ones. I can only guess.

So far I can only speculate what ultimately caused Lawrence Valli to drive a semi owned by John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain, Nevada, into an Amtrak train. Was it a medical condition? His coworkers had stopped their trucks and watched in disbelief as Valli's big rig kept going through the crossing gates despite the warning lights. Was it family problems? He left behind a little girl. Was it substance abuse? How can anyone be certain? His body, burned beyond recognition, was found inside the cab of his truck which was still imbedded into the employee dorm car, the one in front of ours. Was he distracted? Was he texting? Officials found his cell phone, a melted cinder beside his remains. They are looking into the possibility that he was using this device moments before impact. The NTSB says it might take up to a year before they complete their report.

In the meantime, we the passengers of the doomed California Zephyr, which was journeying between Chicago and Emeryville, California live with the pain, the nightmares and the grief. Our loved ones mourn and suffer with us. We know life will never be the same. Some become bitter, some have moved on with their lives. Others like me are trying to make sense of this.

I often wonder why my family and I were spared, for what purpose. We are no better or any more or less loved by our Heavenly Father. Had we died, too, we would be in a better place, but my husband David would have been a lone man, no wife, no daughters, no son-in-law, never to have met our grandson, James. This was a miracle, a whole series of miracles, from the firefighters traveling to the scene of a nearby brush fire, the local rescuers having just had a special training session for large-scale disasters in May. It was divine grace that kept us on the tracks; the Lord helped the engineer, who put on the emergency brakes, keep the California Zephyr on the rails. If we'd toppled, there would have been more dead and wounded. Additionally, the Zephyr's individual cars did not fold, one on top of the other. There was no subsequent fire. By all rights, there should have been. Everything was as dry as a tinderbox along the tracks. Last of all, as I was walking back to my seat, I witnessed the bodies and metal stop as if an unseen force were there. The side of the train, or perhaps the side of the rock hauler, made a "tent" around Kadi's and Johnny's upper bodies. That was, to me personally, the greatest miracle of all. It defied the law of physics. When something is in motion, it remains in motion until another force stops it or slows it. There was nothing to block these objects from coming at us. Yet, the force of heat kept going through me and around me. Witnesses behind us said it was a fireball. People as far back as the observation car said moments after the jolt, flames licked the train on both sides and vanished. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this. My bruises, though fading, hurt. My arms and wrists have pain, I want to cry and cry, but I'm just unable to. My belly is numb. My doctor says I will take even longer to heal from my surgery. At night, my dreams are filled with trains, tracks, fire and screaming. Yet through it all, I thank the Lord that he spared us and will tell anyone at any time, that miracles still happen. If these divine events happened all the time they wouldn't be miracles, they'd be a common occurrence. But this, my friends, defied the laws of Nature and physics, and who better to defy them than the Celestial God who wrote those laws. I just hope He doesn't wait too long to tell us why we were spared. I want to know what my purpose is. I want to get going with whatever task He has for me to do, and when I do it, watch and listen and maybe you can join me in doing something good.

UPDATE: Barbara Bell, age 60 of the United Kingdom, was identified recently by dental records and DNA as the last victim in the train wreck. Update: Robert Breen, a Good Samaritan who had witnessed the accident, later died of complications due to injuries sustained during the rescue effort. He is considered by some to be the seventh, unofficial fatality. Update: John James Spelta, my grandson, was born exactly two months after the accident on August 24, 2011. He is just perfect and so precious! His mom is doing well and his daddy is so proud! Update: As of January 2012, I still have mini anxiety moments when I'm too far from members of my family or if I get too close to a "side-dumper" semi in traffic. I just take deep breaths and pray real hard during those instances. Update: December 2012-January 2013--The NTSB released its report. The driver was said to have been fatigued in the days leading up to the collision. He was reportedly using his cell phone while driving before the accident. Additionally, his employer, John Davis Trucking had bypassed safety features on the truck he was operating as well as several others in the fleet.

(Photo of Johnny Spelta in the ambulance courtesy of passenger Jean Marie.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Too late to say "I'm Sorry".

I'll admit, my dad and I didn't see eye-to-eye on too many things, but I learned a lot from him.

I learned about honesty. I remember the day he found a long lost buddy from the Navy. He'd spent more than twenty years searching for this individual, just to pay him back twenty dollars. His friend had long since forgotten, but my dad didn't. That was the kind of man he was.

I learned about hard work and loyalty. He put in long shifts on the assembly line at the Fisher-body Fleetwood, General Motors Factory in Delray (a part of Detroit). Despite that fact, he always had time for me. I remember so many things we did together! He took me to Elizabeth Park and sat beside me on the pony and cart rides. Also, there were weekends he would take me to a movie. Many times, he'd be passed out from exhaustion in the seat next to me, but he was there. He took time to play with me, teach me about nature, plants and animals and consoled me when I cried. I was his little girl and he was my protector.

Then I grew up. I had different opinions on religion, race relations and career choices. No matter what I chose to do, it just wasn't good enough for his little girl. By this time I was in my twenties. I thought about being a teacher and he wasn’t too keen on that. When I wanted to be a nurse, he wanted me to be a doctor. When I wanted to be a vet tech, he wanted me to be a veterinarian. When I told him I wanted to be a writer, he said to get a real career, like banking. When I had boyfriends, he wanted me to find a REAL MAN (but much later, of course, like in my thirties).

From his example, I learned that flying off the handle and name calling were rude and did nothing for our relationship. I learned that I needed to watch what I ate and drank, and to eat frequent healthy snacks, because not everything he consumed agreed with him. If he skipped a meal, he would become cranky. When he drank beer like our German neighbors did, he would get a killer headache all weekend. (It didn't agree with his Cherokee chemistry.) I learned that addiction could kill. His chain-smoking led to an aggressive lung cancer that took him way, too fast.

I learned that saying “I'm sorry,” and forgiving should never be put off. I hope that's a lesson my oldest daughter will learn before it's too late.

I love you Kadi. I'm sorry. Forgive me.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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