Rock Hill family: Amtrak and relief

Seyward Darby
Seyward Darby Courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine

When Betty Jo Rhea first heard of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia, which killed eight people, her thoughts turned to her granddaughter, Seyward Darby.

Darby, 29, an editor for Foreign Policy magazine, frequently takes the train between her Washington, D.C., office and home in New York City.

She was in the third car on Tuesday, working on her computer, when the train left the tracks. She suffered bruised ribs and an injured back, and had to be carefully extracted from the mangled car because of a recent knee surgery.

Rhea, who was Rock Hill’s mayor for 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s, didn’t learn of her granddaughter’s injuries until her daughter, Catherine Darby, called at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, telling her of Seyward’s injuries.

Rhea’s immediate reaction was, “Oh, my God!” and then she turned to her faith. She went to the Wednesday morning service at The Episcopal Church of Our Savoiur to take communion and to “thank God she was alive. It helped calm me down.”

Rhea then waited to get more news on what had been a regular commute for so many along the Northeast Corridor. One with its routine and its frustrations that quickly became chaos when the seven-car Amtrak train derailed as it sped around a curve heading north from Philadelphia.

With the train twisted into what survivors described as “a pretzel,” eight people died. Many others, particularly at the front, were critically injured.

Some cars rolled several times, landing on their sides and leaving disoriented people who had just settled in with wine, reading and headphones trying to figure out how they could stand up before they could think of how to escape.

There was blackness, and some people recalled a moment of calm as they wondered if what had happened had really happened. Then there was smoke, and everywhere, panic.

Passengers who had managed to hold onto their devices held them up as flashlights while trying to find an exit. A passenger who identified himself as a police officer pushed open a door and began helping people out. People shouted warnings, not to step on the rails, to watch out for the live electrical lines and downed telephone wires.

As people stood on the cars in the middle of the train that were resting on their sides, they looked ahead to the first two cars and realized that the damage there was even worse.

Halfway down the third car, Darby, who often takes the 7:10 p.m. train from Washington when working there, was leaning into a window, editing an article on her laptop and not paying much attention to where the train was.

Suddenly it began to feel as if it were going too fast into a curve, “like when you’re riding a bike on a curve, or a go-cart, and you get pulled really hard to the outside.”

The train began jolting violently. People screamed. Luggage and laptops and bodies were flying everywhere. The car rolled several times, then skidded to a halt on its side.

“I felt like I was on a roller coaster,” said Darby. “I remember thinking, ‘I need to brace myself as hard as I can.’”

Darby’s first thoughts were about her knee.

“I really hope my knee is OK.” Then, “I really hope I’m not dying.”

None of the passengers in the car could figure out how to work the emergency exit, so they pushed out the windows, which were now on the ceiling, using the dangling seats to hoist themselves up. The police cut holes in the side of train cars, and cut down a chain-link fence to get to the train.

Dazed, passengers walked what many recalled as the length of two football fields, where they came to a Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where residents were coming out of a bodega, offering cases of water, and phones for passengers who had lost theirs to call their loved ones.

In the dark outside, Darby’s instinct was to get away from the train. She walked for about 40 yards, then saw a teenager clutching her hands, with bones poking out. She put an arm around her, then, as she felt her own shock, someone else arrived to put an arm around her and warm her with a sweatshirt. They saw police helicopters, and then officers rushing.

“People were just hugging each other, pure strangers,” Darby said. “If you saw someone who just needed human contact, people were being so kind to each other.”

She asked if anyone had died. An officer told her it sounded as if people were getting out fine.

“I knew he was lying,” Darby said.

She wondered about the polite Navy midshipman who had sat next to her, but whom she had not seen outside the train.

“Having felt the sensation of being in that train as it was hurtling,” she said, “there’s no way everyone was going to walk away from it.”

A police officer drove Darby and an injured teenager to Temple University Hospital. A nurse there – Darby recalls her name as Angel – was using her own phone to field calls and texts from family members of the patients.

Darby left the hospital around 3:30 a.m., and headed to 30th Street Station, where she gave a statement to a police officer. There, she saw her reflection in a bathroom mirror, and realized she was covered in dirt.

The head of security then walked her to the holding area where families were waiting.

“I saw my fiancé,” Darby said. “I was in shock, shaking. He couldn’t tell if it was me.”

Rhea said Seyward’s fiance, Corey Sobel, and his family were among the first to get the news and hurried to Philadelphia. Seyward then called her mother and father in Greenville, N.C. The immediate families are all in Philadelphia now.

Rhea said she won’t be going, however.

She prefers to wait three weeks. That’s when Seyward and Corey will be married in Brooklyn. Rhea expects the conversation that day to be about happy times – not the chaos of a train crash.

Herald reporter Don Worthington contributed.