Samantha McDonald and her brother Dax were traveling with other family members from Arizona to Iowa when the Amtrak train they were on hit a dump truck causing rail cars to tumble off the tracks and land on their side.
“When the crash happened, I was on the left side of the train car that we were in and I was thrown to the other side of the train car, hitting my head and scraping my face and hitting the right side of my body against the train car,” she said.
McDonald was bleeding from the right side of her head and face, she said during a morning medical update hosted by the University of Kansas Health System that discussed the medical response to the deadly train derailment.
“I remember when I was standing up and I was looking around there was people bleeding and just everyone got tossed around,” McDonald said.
The entire face of the man who helped her climb out of the train was scratched up, she said.
“It was very, very traumatizing to see that in person and see that actually happening in real life,” she said.
Cloud of dust from dump trucks
Dax McDonald, who was on the right side of the train, said that prior to the crash he saw a dust cloud from trucks driving perpendicular to the train.
“I was just thinking: that’s kind of odd that there’s these two large dump trucks moving kind of quickly, perpendicular to the train,” he said. “That’s when I heard the first bang and I was like oh, we’ve definitely hit something.”
At first, he just thought they were just going to be delayed. But he started to feel the train tip and then he saw the car in front of them start to fall over.
“That’s when I knew that this went from like a delay to, you know, a life or death situation,” he said.
After the train came to a rest, Dax McDonald shot video from inside the train and shared it on social media. He said people were calling out and checking to see if other passengers were OK. Some of the older passengers were dazed and not sure if they could move or thought they had broken limbs. He thinks a person in front of him was having a seizure.
As people were looking to get out, they quickly realized the only way out was through the windows, which were about 10 feet up. People inside and outside of the train helped lift out those who were able to be moved.
He and his sister were traveling with another sister and their mother, who happened to be in another rail car at the time of the crash. Their mom had gotten out before they did and she was going from car to car yelling down to see which one they were in.
Samantha McDonald was the only one in her family who was injured. Emergency crews put her in the “yellow” triage group and then they were put on a bus to Moberly Regional Hospital. There, she was given a red triage card indicating that she needed immediate care. She was sent for a CT scan and then an X-ray for her knee.
“I’m OK, obviously, but just a little banged up,” she said.
Lessons learned from Joplin
Matt Daugherty, director of business development for LifeFlight Eagle in Kansas City, said around 16 helicopters headed to the crash, although commanders on scene determined that they all weren’t required.
“I think we ended up with 11 helicopters total that actually responded to the scene,” he said. “Still the 16 helicopters on their way is more than half the medical helicopters in the state of Missouri heading that direction. So it’s a pretty incredible response.”
A medical helicopter based in Chillicothe, Missouri, was the first helicopter on the scene. It arrived 20 minutes after being dispatched shortly after 1 p.m. That pilot provided air-to-ground communications to help land additional helicopters. The medical crews helped with the initial triage and care for the critically injured patients, Daugherty said.
The medical helicopter response to the derailment drew on lessons learned when an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, Daugherty said.
“In that case, we had a lot of air ambulances that were available as soon as the storm passed, but in that particular case, there wasn’t as good of coordination among the assets as possible,” he said.
Air ambulances can get severely injured patients to trauma centers more quickly and they can spread out the patients to multiple hospitals so that no one facility is burdened with taking all of the patients, he said.
Meanwhile, rescue crews, many from volunteer fire departments from the surrounding communities responded to the derailment.
Dax McDonald said he was thankful for the way the community of Mendon responded to the tragedy.
“Everyone in this small town basically came out and were like coming with crowbars and ladder and everything they could carry to help people get out of the train,” he said. “It was just incredible to see everyone pulling together.”