‘I can’t believe I’m alive.’ Passengers on Amtrak recall harrowing moments after crash

·5 min read

Nathaniel Karum was on the left side of the Southwest Chief, reading his Kindle as the Amtrak train was making its way through Missouri on the way to Chicago.

Then he felt the first of two thumps, and the train rolled.

“In a second or two the whole train had just flipped really fast on its side, I could see the elderly sitting in front of me fly into the window,” he said.

Dust rose. Children immediately began crying.

Four people were killed and about 150 injured when the train derailed after hitting a dump truck at a crossing.

Nathaniel Karum, 20,  grew up in Thailand and had come to Kansas City to be with this brother, to work the summer at a restaurant and to earn money to go visit his sister. He was among the train passengers gathered at Northwestern High School after the crash.
Nathaniel Karum, 20, grew up in Thailand and had come to Kansas City to be with this brother, to work the summer at a restaurant and to earn money to go visit his sister. He was among the train passengers gathered at Northwestern High School after the crash.

Karum grew up in Thailand and had come to Kansas City to be with this brother, to work the summer at a restaurant and to earn money to go visit his sister. He was headed to the Netherlands to see her.

“I could hear the kids screaming. That was the worst, as soon as we landed.”

He was unhurt and grateful that he fell on no one. Someone had opened the window above them. They climbed out.

“It was definitely, if I ever thought that my life flashed before my eyes, it was today,” Karum said. “There was nothing like that feeling, we were all going to die in that moment. Even now, I can’t believe I’m alive. I’m grateful. An intense thing to see and go through.”

‘Dear Jesus, help us’

The Rev. Richard Cassidy, of Bucklin, comforted and prayed with Amtrak passenger Denise Mai, 67, of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

“I was praying the whole time . . . ‘Dear Jesus, help us,” she said, as the train rolled over.

The Rev. Richard Cassidy comforted Amtrak passenger Denise Mai, 67, of Ponca City, Oklahoma. 
The Rev. Richard Cassidy comforted Amtrak passenger Denise Mai, 67, of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Larry Brown, of Atlanta, was using the train to visit multiple destinations, including New Orleans and, on Monday, Chicago.

“I was on a trip to nowhere,” Brown said, while resting in the bleachers at Northwestern High School, where passengers gathered after the crash. “Just bought a USA rail pass. . . was going from LA to Chicago and this was as far as I got.

Larry Brown of Atlanta said he was traveling the country by rail in recent days when he was caught up in the crash. He was among the passengers brought to Northwestern High School after the wreck.
Larry Brown of Atlanta said he was traveling the country by rail in recent days when he was caught up in the crash. He was among the passengers brought to Northwestern High School after the wreck.

“When it crashed,” he said, he was just trying to collect himself long enough to “figure out what I’m going to do next. Getting out, and trying to help whoever needed help.

“We got a couple of windows open and people started to climb out and people were helping pull people out.”

‘We could have died’

Best friends Antwoine Patton and Kyle Bullard were playing a video game inside the train car when they felt the crash.

They had boarded the train in Kansas City on the way to Chicago, where they planned to catch a flight to Michigan for a friend’s wedding.

Suddenly, the train car was on its side as Bullard fell from his chair and landed on his back on a piece of broken glass. They recalled being helped and helping another escape the chaos, as they made their way out of the derailed car, where they saw what appeared to be a dead body buried beneath rubble.

Antwoine Patton, left, and Kyle Bullard are pictured at the Northwestern School District high school in Mendon, Missouri, after a fatal train crash southwest of the town.
Antwoine Patton, left, and Kyle Bullard are pictured at the Northwestern School District high school in Mendon, Missouri, after a fatal train crash southwest of the town.

Patton and Bullard recounted the crash while gathered with other passengers at Northwestern High School.

“We’re like, we don’t know what to do. And then everything kind of finally settled in and we sat down and we were like that really just happened. We could have died,” said Bullard, 21, of Kansas City.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere. No one else had connection. I have one bar so I called my parents, he called his and then people were walking around and asked like what happened?” said Patton, 21, also of Kansas City.

Sherri Schwanz, 54, who teaches music at Lansing Middle School in Kansas, was traveling to Chicago for a National Education Association conference.

“We were on the second floor of the rail car and we heard a big bump and it was like slow motion and it just went and and went,” she said. “We went head over heels and tumbled.

“The next thing you’re on top of people and you’re thinking how am I going to get back upright.

“It was the heroic efforts of fellow passengers. ... It was the people in front of me who said we can do this together. ... And so it was truly an act of everyone being selfless.”

First, a tornado. Now this

In April, Allen Gallaway’s home in Andover, Kansas, was one block away from getting ripped up by a tornado roaring like a freight train. Now this, an actual train wreck, causing him to fly through the air.

“It’s not been a good year for that kind of stuff. It’s like three strikes and you’re out. I don’t want that,” he said, with some levity.

He also was headed to Chicago for the education conference, the first one since COVID. He boarded the train at 6 a.m., four hours later than was scheduled because of delays.

The train was supposed to arrive in Chicago at 3 p.m., but was obviously going to be late.

Gallaway said he was talking with a friend after they had just finished eating. His drink suddenly flew forward.

“We thought the train had stopped abruptly. Then I saw the car in front of us tilting, and we were tilting over. It was surreal. It was like slow motion.

“When I saw what was happening, I just yelled out, ‘No, no no!’ Then it was over.”

People fell on top of him. He was mostly unhurt with a few bumps and bruises. His most present thought, however, was about the people on the train.

“The kindness of people of trying to help each other get out of the train,” he said, “and getting us off the top of the train, and on to the ground.”

He was transported by school bus with scores of others to the school, where they received food and aid.

Many waited for friends or relatives to pick them up, continue their trips. Callaway was not among them. He called his fiance and was headed back home.

“I’ve had enough,” he said.

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