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How I Did It: The First Time I Wrote About Surviving A Fatal Amtrak Crash
When writing about this traumatic event, I tried to stick to facts more than feelings— and focused on the numbers...but those figures turned out to be my "way in" to some locked-away memories.
This piece was first published on March 9, 2015, by the Chicago Tribune’s Pioneer Press.
Sometimes Luck Is All In The Numbers
by Christine Wolf
March 9, 2015
I was 24 years old on March 10, 1993, when I boarded the 7:30 a.m. Amtrak train in Chicago's Union Station. At 11:10 a.m., in Comstock Township, Mich., outside Kalamazoo, our train, traveling 62 mph, collided with a liquid propane tanker truck. The trucker did not survive.
Like so many previous trips to Battle Creek, my coworkers and I were scheduled to present advertising plans depicting critters peddling breakfast carbs to kids. Very, very important stuff this was, plus the annoying train always ran late.
The moment of impact forever plays in excruciating slow motion.
• A muffled thump from a distance ahead.
• An involuntary lurch out of my seat, knocking me to the floor.
• The expression on my boss's face shift from laughter to confusion.
• "Dan," I say, not at all a question. Perhaps a plea? A final statement?
• Screams erupt from up ahead.
• Dan's face, frozen, into a stare.
• A female voice.
• The smell of fuel.
• The realization I am screaming.
There is dead silence, then—though I'm crumpled on the floor—the brief sensation of whispers and free-falls, as if from a height. My clothes and hair lift briefly off my body then whip back against me in an invisible, crushing, and sustained blast of heat.
You've heard how lives flash before our eyes? It really happens. My life's "movie" lasted all of four seconds, but I saw everything. I was certain I was about to die.
At that time, The U.S. Department of Energy estimated an individual's risk of death by a propane shipment accident was 1 in 15 million—half the chance of death by plane debris hitting a person on the ground and 13,333 times more likely than death by a meteorite. And it's really no wonder I remember that heat: the same DOE study pegged the approximate combustion temperature of a propane tank rupture at 3,500 F.
When I realized the train was still moving, I tried to see beyond flames outside every window—including those tiny ones cut into the exit doors. As long as I live, I'll never feel as trapped as when those flames surrounded us. Only later did I learn how fortunate we were: our engineer, who sustained second degree burns on his upper body from the fireball, had the presence of mind to avoid braking until every car passed through—and beyond—the raging fire.
When we finally stopped, our car immediately filled with smoke. I can still feel the urgent, collective rush toward the doors, adrenaline surging as passengers pried open metal, still hot to the touch. We stumbled onto frozen land, smelling of panic, fuel and fear.
Within minutes, emergency personnel and reporters appeared, as breathless with their questions as we were numbed by shock. I zoned out, staring into the rounded, black sponge of a reporter's microphone, unable to describe the moment of impact.
A kind, local soul drove us to our client's headquarters, and we got there just in time for our afternoon meeting. I've never understood why we didn't just go home, but when you've just survived a fatal train accident, you're grateful to be anywhere.
Five years after the accident, I saw the movie "Sliding Doors," depicting two different ways a woman's life plays out, depending on whether she misses—or slides through—the doors of a train. I still love that movie and its evergreen message, that things always happen for a reason.
I am 46 years old, and this year I opened a writers' retreat 46 miles from the crash site. I am one of 46 people who survived the 1993 Wolverine Amtrak crash, thanks to a conductor whose name I never learned.
This column is dedicated to him.
Since this piece appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 9, 2021, I’ve written about this subject several times. My second piece was published by Invisible Illness (A Medium Publication) on January 18, 2018. My third piece was a spoken word essay at The Moth in February, 2018. I published my fourth piece here on Substack on April 6, 2021. My fifth piece was also published here on Substack, on March 7, 2023.
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