While driving home from physical training on Monday, U.S. Army 2nd. Lt. Robert McCoy saw a train go off its overpass rails and plunge onto Interstate 5 in Washington – just 10 miles from Joint Base Lewis McChord.
All but one of the train’s 13 cars derailed, with several dangling into rush hour traffic, hitting two semitrucks and five cars. People were out of their vehicles after the derailment, some calling loved ones and some injured.
“They were directly below ... the hanging part of the train,” McCoy said. “My first concern was, if this falls, it’s going to fall directly on these individuals, so I went to these individuals, seeing what condition they were in.”
He directed people away from the overpass, as another service member -- who also ran from his vehicle to the derailment -- went from car to car, asking people if they were hurt.
When he learned that the people below the train cars were moving, Maj. Mike Livingston went to the train.
“I went to the locomotive and knocked on the door ... I said, ‘Are you guys OK,’ and they said, ‘yes,’” Livingston said. “I went back to the dangling train car. I saw Lt. McCoy scale up the back of the semitrailer like Spider-Man, so I thought I would go the same way.”
Inside the train, Livingston found a woman who was shaken up after her husband and 8-year-old daughter were trapped in a bathroom. The woman’s mother, who had a broken collarbone, was also on board.
McCoy helped bring the injured woman to safety as Livingston talked to the man stuck in the bathroom with his daughter.
“Superman here (McCoy) got in as I was trying to open the door," Livingston said. "(McCoy) started banging the door so hard I thought he was going to break his kneecap. That door would not budge, trying to get that father and daughter out.”
The father and daughter were OK, but the two service members did not have the tools to open the door; later emergency crews would come to their aid.
While first responders started to arrive on scene, McCoy and Livingston created a system to get other people off the train cars. That’s when Lt. Col. Chris Sloan came aboard, saw McCoy in a physical training uniform and introduced himself.
Sloan had seen the crash while driving and climbed the semi like a ladder to get onto the train cars.
As the three service members helped people over the seats and around the aisle, they found a woman who was wedged in between the seats. She was beside her husband.
“They weren't going to depart each others' sides. It was very important that they were together,” Sloan said. “All we could see was her hip and a broken leg. We talked to her. We pulled her out, inch by inch, until we could get her to sit up. Then she took a breath and said, ‘I’m going to be OK.’”
The woman was well enough to walk on one leg, but because of how the train lay, three people had to help her.
“We had (her husband) make his way out and the three of us, we were able to get her to turn around. I had her underneath the arms, and we carried her,” Sloan said. “Eventually we got her out ... and the EMS was able to take her to the hospital.
McCoy, Livingston, and Sloan were trained on how to respond to crises like Monday's tragedy. They commended the dozens of other people – including an Eagle Scout – who rushed to help victims in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, as first responders were on the way to the scene.
Three people died and more than 70 people were injured when Amtrak Cascades Train 501 derailed after the National Transportation Safety Board said it hurtled down the tracks at more than 50 mph over the speed limit.
“People were caring about doing what was right,” Sloan said. "When people are rushing to those situations, they find where the need is, and they fill it.”
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