Passenger on derailed Connecticut train describes violent collision, acts of kindness

Scott Bartelson is a twice-daily commuter on Connecticut’s Metro-North Railroad, which takes him between his hometown of Stratford, Conn. and his job at a small non-profit theater company near the train station in Darien, Conn.

On Friday night, Bartelson’s familiar commute home suddenly turned into chaos when his eastbound train derailed and then was struck by a train traveling in the opposite direction on an adjacent track. The violent crash sent 60 passengers to hospital, several with serious injuries, and brought rail traffic to a standstill on the busy Northeast Corridor, a portion of which runs from Washington DC to Boston.

The incident began shortly after the train left a station in Fairfield, Conn., Bartelson said in a phone interview this afternoon.

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“Right as the conductor was taking my ticket, the train went right off the tracks,” said Bartelson, who estimated the train was traveling 40 to 50 miles per hour. “It started tipping to one side, constantly bumping up and down and back and forth like crazy. I saw sparks right outside my window.”

Bartelson said he gripped the armrest of his seat with all his strength to keep himself from flying through the cabin, exchanging an intense “this is it” look with the passenger sitting next to him.

When the train finally came to a rest, it started filling with either smoke or dust, Bartelson said.

“We were all looking at each other, saying, ‘we have to get out of here,’ ” he said.

But before anyone could make it out of the train, it was violently struck by the train moving in the opposite direction on an adjacent track, Bartelson said.

“Thirty seconds later, the train going the other way came and jammed right onto us,” he said. “It scraped the side of our car and gave us another bad jolt.”

A few seconds later, the doors of the train opened.

“At that point, it became about getting out of the train as quickly as possible,” Bartelson said. “We had to drop down about 3 feet to the ground. There were two guys helping people down... As I climbed out, I could see the tracks were totally deformed and bent of out shape.”

Bartelson noticed an elderly woman who was bleeding from the head and had apparently injured her hand.

“I saw this woman whose hand was totally bent and in bad shape,” he said. “She smashed her thumb and fingers; she was in incredible pain.”

Bartelson said he dialed 911 as soon as he was clear of the train, and emergency vehicles started to arrive about 10 minutes later.

Several doctors and a nurse who were aboard the train jumped into action, he said, triaging and comforting the injured until ambulances arrived.

Passengers became worried about being electrocuted by dangling overhead wires, Bartelson said, so they collectively decided to move toward a safe area underneath a nearby highway overpass.

Bartelson was impressed by the way his fellow passengers reacted to the emergency.

“There was no one in hysterics,” he said. “Certainly, there were people who were emotionally upset and physically hurt, but most people were in control and trying to figure it out, trying to organize and keeping everything secure, calming people down.”

Passengers shared food and water with each other, he said, and even offered to share taxis or help arrange rides. “It was nice to feel like you had someone there for you,” Bartelson said.

Bartelson said he enjoys taking the train, because it allows him to do work or relax while commuting. But whether he will feel comfortable getting back on the train depends on the cause of the accident.

“Life goes on, and it’s not like we’re going to get rid of trains,” he said. “But you have to figure out what caused this. The accident was right in the middle of what looks like a construction zone —did that play a part? You have to ask the questions.”