Passengers aboard the Amtrak train that slammed into a freight train Sunday described being jolted from slumber before dawn as seats ripped away, awakening to screams and crying.
"It was shaking, then it started jumping," said passenger Eric Larkin of the train's final moments, speaking with The Associated Press. He said his seat broke loose, slamming him into the row of seats in front of him. He had been seated toward the middle of the train when, suddenly, he awoke as he felt it leave the tracks as it hit a curve.
It was in the panic that followed, Larkin said, that he heard screams and crying all around him as passengers sought to exit the crumpled train. He said other passengers were bleeding and that his right knee throbbed from where it banged on the seats in front of him.
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Walking with a limp, hours later, the Pamlico County, North Carolina, resident said he was dazed and didn't even know where he was when the train finally came to a complete stop.
Soon after he got off the train, Larkin said arriving police officers told him to stop taking photos of the wreckage and not to share any of the images he had already captured.
"I thought it was a little strange," Larkin said of the request. Eventually he was shuttled to a middle school with other passengers.
"It's a blessing to be alive," said Larkin. "I thought that I was dead."
It was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months. The Silver Star was en route from New York to Miami with nearly 150 people aboard when it struck the empty CSX train around 2:45 a.m. Sunday, authorities said.
The crash happened near a switchyard south of Columbia where railcars hauling automobiles are loaded and unloaded.
Many of the passengers were asleep.
Andre Neblett, who previously played with the NFL's Carolina Panthers, told the AP his 43-year-old mother Tronia Dorsey was onboard the Amtrak train. He said she described massive jolts.
"It was chaos," Neblett said, describing what his mother told him as he left an American Red Cross shelter where his mother's purple suitcase had been sent. "It's unbelievable."
Dorsey's daughter was to have picked her up in the community of Denmark, South Carolina, shortly after the train moved through Columbia, the South Carolina capital.
In the third rail car, a seat had fallen onto Dorsey's legs, her son said, and she described "a lot of screaming" and babies crying in the darkened rail compartment.
"She said she was just waiting on somebody to get to her," Neblett said.
He drove in from Charlotte, North Carolina, to retrieve her belongings and added his mother was safely resting later with family after being checked out at a hospital.
"Minor scratches and bruises but really just traumatized by the whole experience," he said. "We didn't know what to expect. ... Thank God she was safe."
Some passengers called their loved ones in the minutes afterward.
The State newspaper reports Ryan Roberts couldn't believe it when his wife Alexandria Delgado awoke him with a call early Sunday to their Raleigh, North Carolina, home. He said he asked her to repeat herself three times when she said her train had derailed.
He had left his wife and another female friend off at the Raleigh train station Saturday night so they could take a trip to Florida. Roberts said he and the husband of the other women drove for hours to reach Columbia, not knowing the extent of their loved one's conditions.
Both women were banged up and still being treated at a hospital Sunday afternoon and "in a lot of pain," said Roberts.
"They were sleeping and woke up to a nightmare," Roberts told the paper. "They were horrified."