From calm to catastrophe: Amtrak train crash victims tell their stories

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Joan Elfman knew her ribs were probably fractured. But as a nurse, her mind was on the wounded around her.

“I saw so many head injuries and bloody faces,” she told told CNN affiliate KYW. “There were a lot of fractures — arms, shoulders, all kinds of fractures.”

When Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, it tore apart passenger cars, toppling some over.

Passengers were launched from their seats onto the luggage racks above them. Suitcases, laptops and chairs flew. The engine was a mangled wreck, the rails torn up.

At least five people were killed and at least 136 more were hospitalized — some with critical injuries.

Elfman couldn’t believe the destruction.

“This is a nightmare,” she recalled thinking, “and it can’t be happening.”

‘Then there was a jolt’

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is 363 miles of track that connects Washington to Boston and is the busiest railroad in North America. Each day it carries more than three times as many riders between Washington and New York City as planes do.

Train 188 was on its way from Washington to New York, carrying 238 commuters and five crew members at the end of another long work day.

The trip had been uneventful, until the train was passing through the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia.

That’s when Daniel Wetrin said he saw passengers catapulted onto luggage rack.

“There were two people above our head in the luggage rack asking to be helped down,” he told CNN. “It was just unbelievable.”

While it’s not clear whether speed was a factor, passenger Janna D’Ambrisi said she thought the train was going “a little too fast around a curve.”

“Then there was a jolt. And immediately you could tell the train derailed,” she said. “I was thrown into the girl next to me, sitting in the window seat. The train started to tip that way, to the right. And people on the other side of the train started to fall on us.”

Moments later, she heard a loud banging from the bathroom. Inside, a man was screaming.

“He was trying to unlock the door, but it was stuck. The metal must have been bent.”

‘Keep crawling’

With seven train cars thrown off the tracks, some ended up completely upside down. Others looked like smashed aluminum cans.

One video posted on Instagram showed people trying to help passengers out.

“Keep crawling, OK?” one man tells a passenger.

“Where am I crawling to?” the passenger asks.

“Crawl forward, sir,” another man says.

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’

Many passengers managed to walk away, though some had bloodied shirts or gaping head wounds wrapped in bandages.

But even the journey away from the crash was treacherous.

“All the power cables that run parallel to the track caved in,” Wetrin said. “There were cut cables hanging around.”

Many passengers, including former Congressman Patrick Murphy, praised the scores of firefighters and police who arrived within minutes.

“Thank you so much to all the first responders-there w/in minutes,” Murphy tweeted. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

‘I’m still here’

But not all the rescuers were wearing uniforms.

“My son went back and got everybody off our one car,” Elfman said. “There was a very small opening in the door, and we were able to get out.”

Her son told KYW that his first priority was getting his mother off the train. Then he went to help help strangers.

“Luckily I’m still here, I’m still walking,” Max Elfman said. “So I figured I would do my best to help because I saw everyone — I could see the blood on people’s faces. They can’t move. … So I just tried to do my best to help people get out of that car.”

By Holly Yan

CNN’s Don Lemon and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.

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