A big boom of an explosion, fire billowing up into the air and heavy rail cars jackknifing through the dark brought residents on both sides of the Brunswick line tracks, immersed in the small things of an early Friday evening, rushing to their windows.
Lights in the adjacent Rosemary Village Apartments flickered as the trains slammed into each other.
A fireball sent flames down a hill toward the apartment complex, followed by billows of thick, black smoke, witnesses said.
"All I could do is think that it was going to come down the hill and that this building was going to catch fire," said Ida Phillips, who was washing dishes and looking out a kitchen window when the collision occurred.
"It was like a big sonic boom," said Anthony San Filippo, who lives in another apartment complex nearby.
The tracks here run on a raised embankment, with trees on either side. Neighbors are used to watching trains go by, part of the routine of daily life.
Often, some said, boys will play on the tracks, so at first it didn't even seem strange when they heard a train whistling urgently last night.
But then came the big crash. There was no mistaking it for anything but a wreck.
Cars from the Amtrak train, the Capitol Limited bound for Chicago, plowed through the track bed as they fell off to the south side of the tracks, some upright, some careening over. The fire flared upward, yellow flames and thick, black smoke.
"It was clear there was some dead in the cars as soon as we arrived," said one of the first firefighters on the scene, who would not give his name. "There were indicators -- the smell of burning flesh and things like that," said the firefighter, his face blackened by the smoke.
Knapsacks, book bags and personal belongings were scattered about one car, said the firefighter, from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department.
The fire was most intense in one car, which was burned so completely that only the steel frames were left of the seats. A diner and sleeping car, on the other hand, remained upright on the tracks.
The Maryland Rail Commuter train, being pushed eastward with its locomotive in the rear, was "a mess," one witness said.
One resident of an apartment complex to the north of the tracks, who asked not to be identified, said he saw an engineer leap from the Amtrak train just at the moment of the explosion.
The train continued to slide forward, he said, with one locomotive burning. But a fire also continued to burn on the spot where the original explosion occurred, he said, eventually engulfing one of the cars. One Amtrak locomotive went off into the woods. The second one came to rest against the MARC train.
The scene, as witnesses and rescuers reached it, was one that suggested great power and violence. Ray Handel, a rescue worker, described it this way: "Take a car accident," he said, "and magnify it because of the weight."
Passengers stumbled off the Amtrak train, dazed, bleeding, limping.
"It was a real bad one," said Phillip Baumgartner, who lives on Lyttonsville Road. "A real mess."