How lives converged on tragic stretch of rail Collision: One train's timely departure, the other's delay, passengers' many small decisions -- all coalesced on a snowy Friday evening in Silver Spring.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The snow had been falling all that Friday -- big, soft flakes that piled up fast. The snow-slick roads would be dangerous. The visibility would be poor.

Safer to take the train.

So Tyrai Boyer, 17, who usually took the bus home to Philadelphia from the Job Corps site in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where he was learning brick masonry, this time caught Maryland Rail Commuter Train 286.

Seventeen other Job Corps students boarded the first car with him, joking and pushing as they looked forward to their free Presidents Day weekend. The train left Brunswick on time at 4:30 p.m., three mostly empty passenger cars pushed by a locomotive, winding southeast to Washington along the picturesque Potomac River.

And 49.8 miles of track away, inside Union Station, the 175 passengers booked on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago were growing restless. Their scheduled 4:05 p.m. departure had passed and still they were sitting in the stuffy lounges, wondering and grumbling mildly about the delay.

But many of them, including Barbara J. Ross, 70, a retired schoolteacher returning from a visit to her sister in Fort Lauderdale to her home in Muskegon, Mich., didn't mind the time. They were willing to wait for Amtrak because they just didn't trust airplanes.

Safer to take the train.

Except that on this night of Feb. 16, random facts -- the late Amtrak departure, the almost on-time MARC departure, the decision of the Job Corps students to sit in the front car, the design of the MARC car's emergency exits -- would conspire to produce tragedy.

The two trains would meet in a terrible coincidence of crumpled metal and blazing fuel, terrified passengers pounding shatterproof windows to escape, rescuers driven back by heat and fear of explosion. And 11 people on the MARC train -- eight of the Job Corps students, three crewmen -- would not survive.

'It was gloomy out'

On the MARC local, the Job Corps crew settled in for the 80-minute ride, talking, laughing, dozing. They were a tightknit bunch, 16 to 23 years old, most of them from big cities between Richmond, Va., and New York, two young women and 16 young men united by disadvantaged childhoods and a desire to overcome them.

Like several of the kids, Tyrai wore his Walkman, relaxing to his favorite music: Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J, Craig Mack. His duffel bag was loaded with dirty clothes destined for his mother's washer.

Damian Benitez, 19, another Philadelphian, was looking forward to hanging out with his older brother, maybe catching a movie or going to a dance club. He was a few months into his Job Corps program, learning house-painting and the more arcane arts of wallpaper, stucco, sandblasting. He had found the Job Corps rules strict but decided that "that's what makes you a man."

Diana Hanvichid, 17, was heading home to Woodbridge, Va. She had passed her high school equivalency test in November and was working at the Heartland Nursing Home, considering a career in health care. Michael Woodson, 17, of Philadelphia, had insisted on coming home despite his mother's protests, because he wanted to give her the Valentine's presents he had purchased.

The group's two Baltimoreans were Dante Swain, 18, an aspiring carpenter who had just passed the last math test for a high school equivalency diploma, and Carlos Byrd, 18, who played on the Job Corps basketball team and hoped to go into medicine.

At 4:41, the MARC train reached the station at Point of Rocks, and the train creaked and lurched as it changed tracks. Someone joked about a train wreck, and macabre humor bounced around the lighthearted group. Damian Benitez, the rapper Scarface playing in his headphones, remarked, "They're trained for that," gesturing at the engineer and conductor visible through a glass panel at the front of the car.

In the cab, engineer Richard Orr, 43, of Glen Burnie was at the controls, a 25-year rail veteran who had been promoted from freight to passenger trains in the last couple of years. The conductor, Linthicum resident James E. Major Jr., 48, had passed through the car collecting tickets and joined Mr. Orr in the cab. Assistant conductor James Quillen, 53, of Frederick had his Bible with him, as he always did when he rode the rails.

Passing from Frederick County into Montgomery, the train headed straight toward Washington as the Potomac meandered away to the south. "It was gloomy out, even though it was daytime," Damian Benitez would remember. "The snow was coming down quick."

As usual, the MARC 286 was uncrowded as it ran against the rush hour. It raced through rural crossroads into burgeoning bedroom exurbs: Dickerson, Barnesville, Boyds, Germantown, Metropolitan Grove, Gaithersburg, Washington Grove.

At least two more passengers boarded en route. Nicole Francois, 26, was returning home to New York after visiting relatives in Montgomery County. Geraldine A. Dykes, 54, absorbed in a book, had absent-mindedly boarded the wrong train at Union Station. She discovered her mistake in Brunswick, just in time to catch MARC 286 back toward Washington.

'Nervous about flying'

At Union Station, meanwhile, Nelson R. Kerr III, 32, stepped into a railroad hobby shop and bought a see-through train to occupy his 2-year-old son, Spencer, on their long ride home to Grand Forks, N.D. With Spencer and his 9-month-old son, Reed, Mr. Kerr had traveled to Rockville for a wedding. His mother, Anne Leland, had agreed to accompany him home to help with the two boys, who were growing fidgety at the tedious wait.

Rail workers preparing the Capitol Limited for departure needed extra time to clean snow from the vestibules between the cars. They waited for other traffic to clear before backing the train into the station for boarding. Finally, about 5 p.m., the delayed departure was announced. The Kerrs climbed into the second of the train's two sleeper cars and settled into their cabin.

Their sleeper was in the 10th of 15 cars hitched to two powerful locomotives, which were supposed to pull them overnight across the Appalachians and deep into the Midwest. Six cars carried mail, one baggage. Riders were aboard the two sleepers, two coach cars, a diner, a lounge and two crew cars.

In another sleeper cabin, Barbara Ross, the retired teacher, was pleased the tension of the wait was over. She placed her suitcase on the floor and unzipped it, but was too worn out to unpack her things. She sat back on the sofalike seat and "just stared into space."

At 5:20, 75 minutes behind schedule, the Capitol Limited pulled out. Traffic crept along the streets of Northeast Washington in the gathering dusk, car headlights illuminating the falling snow.

A few compartments away from Ms. Ross, Barb and Jim Kane, both 44, arranged carry-on luggage while their 10-year-old daughter, Heather, explored the cabin. The marathon trip from their home in Peoria, Ill., to Barb Kane's father in Punta Gorda, Fla., was Heather's first train trip. Her mother, "nervous about flying," was a train veteran.

The Kanes had befriended a Chicago woman, Sandy Dorgan, on the ride up from Florida; she had complained earlier of chest pains and they were concerned about her. So Mrs. Kane and Heather decided to walk back to her coach car to check on her. Mr. Kane stepped into the sleeper's tiny bathroom to shave.

In the Kerrs' cabin, Mrs. Leland fed a bottle to baby Reed on one of the bench seats. Mr. Kerr sat across from her, chatting and watching Spencer, who played on the floor, enthralled by his new toy.

'Go for cover!'

MARC 286 stopped in Rockville to let off one Job Corps passenger, Timothy Fowler. About 5:30 p.m., the train stopped at the Kensington station. Then, either because he forgot a yellow caution signal before the Kensington stop or because the signal malfunctioned, the engineer, Mr. Orr, accelerated to 63 mph.

Some of the Job Corps students were asleep, lulled to drowsiness by the train's gentle rhythm. Others chatted or lip-synced with the music in their headphones.

Damian Benitez suddenly had a strange sensation and leapt to his feet. "Something, I don't know what, made me stand up and look down the aisle," he recalled.

He saw the engineer and one of the other crewmen "sort of jump back" as they stared down the tracks ahead. "Both of them reacted that way," he said.

The two men turned and started to shout a warning. Damian heard their words -- "Abort train! Abort train!" he thought one said, then "Get down!" and "Go for cover!" But it was not the engineer's voice that spoke the loudest -- it was his face.

"His expression was like he'd seen a ghost. His expression was full of death, full of horror," Damian said.

Everything "felt like slow motion." Through the front window, Damian "just saw the snow, flying wild." The engineer dove to the floor. The conductor jumped behind a seat. Damian ran to the back of the car, squatted on the floor and gripped a padded seat with all his strength.

'Ball of fire'

Eleven floors above the tracks, in their apartment in the Park Sutton condominium building, Virginia Di Cenzo, 69, and her housemate, Michelle Williams, 32, were standing in their dining room, getting ready for dinner. Ms. Williams was talking on the phone with her sister in Delaware, pacing at the limit of the telephone cord.

The rumble of a train below -- an absolutely routine sound for the residents of Park Sutton -- suddenly erupted in a bone-shaking explosion. The two women stared out the window.

"The ball of fire went up, and I caught just the tail end of it," said Ms. Di Cenzo. "A huge fireball, with oranges and reds in it."

They opened the window and could hear screams from the blazing wreckage below.

Ms. Di Cenzo, who was recovering from knee surgery, grabbed the phone to dial 911. Ms. Williams, a trained emergency medical technician, grabbed her coat and ran for the elevator.

'You're going to die'

Aboard the blazing MARC car, its front sliced open by the 131-ton Amtrak locomotive, the Job Corps students who were still conscious began struggling to escape. "The lights were out. The air filled with smoke. The only light was the fire at the front of the car," said Damian Benitez.

He stepped through the open door to the vestibule and groped for a handle to open the outside door. Behind him people were screaming, pushing. Others were pounding on the windows. "Somebody grabbed me out of fear and said 'Open the door!' When the doors weren't opening, I just kept hearing in my head, 'You're going to die, you're going to die.' "

Suddenly, Damian said, "it was like a voice spoke to me: 'Look at the second car.' " He rushed into the second car. "I saw darkness, and then I saw a crack in the car, and the brightness of the snow through the crack. I just leaped through it," landing on the tracks.

"I was surrounded by trains. I looked to my left and saw fire. To my right I saw fire. I crawled under the Amtrak and got out the other side." He stumbled down a hill, followed by two other students, Richard Brown and Rodney Crawford. Rodney fell on the hill. Richard, screaming about those left on the train, tried to return to the wreck. Damian stopped him.

"The fire was too big," he said.

Six more Job Corps students, as well as Ms. Dykes and Ms. Francois, escaped from the wreck. Tyrai Boyer, remembering the teachings of his family's Pentecostal faith, cried out, "Blood of Jesus!" as he kicked open a door and jumped from the train.

'Completely helpless'

Michelle Williams stepped off the elevator at the lobby level just long enough to shout to the receptionist to call 911. When she got back on the elevator, two other residents, Earren Kerns and Chester Chandler, were there. Together they rode to the ground floor, bolted across the parking lot and clambered up the hill through snowdrifts toward the wreckage.

Ms. Williams ran to the Amtrak train, then heard screams and ran to the first MARC car.

"I saw three people banging, banging with their fists on thwindow," she said. Two were young men, one a young woman, she said -- the Job Corps students. She could see their panicked faces, hear their screams. One kept crying, "Get me out! Get me out!"

Horrified, she struck the bulletproof glass with her own fist. "The first time I hit it, it felt like it broke my hand. I pounded three or four more times. Then I looked around for something to use to break it, and there was nothing. I pulled at the rubber molding, but I couldn't budge it," she said.

The thought occurred to her that she should have grabbed a hammer or wrench on the way out. She felt the searing heat of the flames about five feet to her left. Then she heard the police, who had climbed the hill behind the three neighbors, ordering them to get away from the train, which they feared would blow up.

She backed away, still watching the window. "Suddenly black smoke filled the car, and we couldn't see the faces," she said. "It was so horrible. We were completely helpless. There was just no way to get it open."

A few minutes later, her clothes soaked with diesel fuel, she saw a young man run down the hill. He was Kelvin Williams, a Job Corps student from Seat Pleasant. His forehead and hands were bloody, his back was injured and he was talking hysterically about his friends on the train.

Ms. Williams and her friends led him into Park Sutton's "party room," where four rescue workers were creating a triage center, tagging the injured with color codes: red for the most severely injured, yellow for the next, then green.

'A surreal setting'

John Simmons was driving his Siberian husky, Bushka, back from a romp in the snow in Rock Creek Park. His car was on the 16th Street bridge above the tracks when the collision came.

"I couldn't even tell it was a train," said Mr. Simmons. "I thought it was a house on fire. Diesel fuel had sprayed everywhere."

A couple blocks away at Mr. Simmons' house, Cristine Thompson was busy taking reservations for a performance by their comedy group, Gross National Product. She felt the ground rumble and thought it might be an earthquake. Then she looked outside and saw "a gigantic mushroom cloud of black, rolling smoke."

Mr. Simmons drove quickly home and dialed 911. Then the two of them drove back to the bridge.

"There was fire everywhere -- fire burning on the snow, on the trees, everywhere the fuel had sprayed," Ms. Thompson said.

Mr. Simmons saw "a surreal setting. It was twilight. To the north, I could see a car blazing. It was melting. I said, 'Oh my God, it's a passenger car!' It was obvious that people were dying."

On their side of the tracks, Amtrak passengers began to leave the buckled train. "We saw dazed, zombielike people getting off and wandering around," Mr. Simmons said.

'I hugged her'

Aboard the Amtrak, Barbara Ross' reverie had been shattered with "an awful, awful bang and a wrench." Her first thought was that the Amtrak engine had hit something "and that we'd be even later. My second thought was, 'Oh, boy, I've got whiplash.' You felt it in your neck right away." She could hear a crewman yelling, "Anyone hurt?" and a child crying.

In the Kerrs' compartment, both boys were screaming. The power had been knocked out, and only tiny emergency lights made anything visible. Mr. Kerr and his mother struggled to calm the children, listening to an attendant say, "We've had a &L; derailment."

Barb and Heather Kane, on their way to visit their new friend in the coach car, had reached the dining car when the impact came. They were thrown to the floor as silverware and pats of butter flew across the car.

LTC "I crawled to Heather, who was crying out, and I hugged her," Mrs. Kane recalled.

Then they thought of Mr. Kane and rushed back toward the front of the train, calling out for him. Shaving in the tiny bathroom, he had heard only a muffled blast and felt the train lurch. Only when he heard the chief of on-board services calling 911 and speaking with astonishing calm and precision into a cellular phone about a derailment and fire did he understand what had happened.

He panicked, realizing he had no idea where his wife and daughter were. And then he heard their voices, calling to him.

A few minutes later, a paramedic led them off the train, revealing to them for the first time that the Amtrak had hit a commuter train. Outside, snow was still falling through the smoky air. A man approached them and offered to take them back to his house to warm up.

It was John Simmons.

A neighbor helps

After settling the Kanes in his house with Cristine Thompson, Mr. Simmons organized the neighbors, urging several to bring their cars to the tracks to provide warm shelter for the Amtrak passengers. "The firefighters were so overwhelmed that they were just throwing people at us," Mr. Simmons said.

A woman named Laura, in her 60s, was having heart palpitations. Mr. Simmons drove her to Holy Cross Hospital -- after first helping into another car the three young children who were warming themselves in his Ford Explorer.

Amtrak workers were entering passengers' names, injuries and locations into hand-held computers. At one point a female Amtrak employee in a full-length sable mink coat -- apparently summoned to the scene from a night on the town -- appeared at Mr. Simmons' house to lead passengers to a bus, which took them to a nearby elementary school.

From there, the shaken passengers eventually were taken to Union Station. They went part of the way by bus -- and part of the way on a MARC train.

Signal: 'Emergency'

Some 800 miles south, at the CSX Transportation Inc. operations center in Jacksonville, Fla., a red light flashed on a computer in front of the dispatcher responsible for the Maryland track. Next to the light was a single word: "Emergency."

The lines on a huge screen overhead turned red and pulsated. Among them was the code P28616, the call-sign of the doomed MARC train. A high-pitched buzz at his workstation told the dispatcher there was a call on the emergency radio channel, dispatchers at the operations center said.

On the line was the engineer of a freight train stopped in SilveSpring -- the freight train that had caused the Amtrak liner to be switched onto the track used by the MARC train. "The engineer told him there was a collision. He was pretty frantic," said one worker. The dispatcher heard a rapid-fire report about a fireball and columns of black smoke.

He tried to reach the Amtrak train, using the push-button display on his terminal that would immediately connect him to the train's engineer.

No answer.

He tried the MARC train.

No answer.

Recovery begins

When Tyrai Boyer emerged from sedation at Suburban Hospital the next day, the tube in his throat prevented him from speaking. But he motioned to his mother, Marlene, to give him a pencil and paper.

He wrote a question: "Did Diana get out?" She told him she didn't know the fate of his friend, Diana Hanvichid. A few days later, when he was beginning to recover from severe lung damage caused by the smoke and diesel fuel, she told him Diana was dead.

The aftermath of the accident has played out in various ways. Some of the young MARC survivors have suffered despair over their friends' deaths and guilt over their own escapes. The Amtrak passengers, who experienced the deaths at a distance, fared better; many agreed to be bused to Harrisburg, Pa., the next day to pick up the Capitol Limited and continue on their way. One man, relishing the media attention, got off the train in Chicago with a handwritten sign identifying himself as a train wreck survivor.

Along with the media hordes came some brazen attorneys. At 8 p.m. the day after the crash, as pathologists in the Maryland medical examiner's office completed the difficult and gruesome task of identifying the dead, a buzzer rang at their office on Penn Street in Baltimore. At the door was a lawyer seeking the names of the dead so he could offer his litigation services to their families. He was politely turned away.

For those who tried to help the dying, and could not, the past week has been difficult. Michelle Williams, Earren Kerns, Chester Chandler and other Park Sutton neighbors involved in the rescue attempt gathered Wednesday for a quiet prayer service in the lobby.

The next morning, Ms. Williams said she was proud of how her neighborhood responded to the tragedy. "If the world only came together like we did that night, we'd be a lot better off," she said.

But she said it would take a long time to get over the anguish of witnessing what happened to MARC 286.

The previous night, after the prayer service, she'd had a nightmare, she said. "I was trapped on a train with a fire," she said. "There was just a feeling of doom."

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