A Boy Scout Activity Advisor shares his personal story of a train derailment
by Amy R. Weber/Fitzgibbon Hospital
Special for The Democrat-News
“You could hear it…the train had hit something. But it didn’t stop immediately,” said Jonathan Awe, one of 275 passengers on the Amtrak train that derailed Monday near Mendon while en route from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Awe was still hospitalized Thursday morning June 30 at Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall and was one of 11 patients brought to Fitzgibbon for treatment.
An Appleton, Wis., schoolteacher and activity advisor for Boy Scout Troop 73, Awe was in the caboose of the train with other troop members — including his two teenage sons — returning from a trip to the legendary Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
“I was reading a book and I looked out the window. You could see debris and grass flying past us – just going everywhere,” Awe described. “We were on the left side of the train. it started rolling, I reached out to grab my phone and then flew off – smashed into the chairs across the aisle and possibly into the overhead luggage compartment… I really don’t know I realized the car had rolled over, and I thought I’d gouged my lung, because I couldn’t breathe. When the train stopped, I really couldn’t move. I knew I was hurt, but I didn’t know how badly.
As he recalled the scene of the accident while lying in his hospital bed in Fitzgibbon, he raised his hands and waved above his head. His eyes flickered back and forth as he relived those terrifying moments, realizing that for a few minutes he had no idea if his boys had survived the wreckage.
“I was then able to hear my eldest son, Elijah, and his voice,” Awe said, the tone of his voice rising as he fought back the tears of such a raw and fresh memory. “And I called him and asked him to try to find his brother.”
Young brothers Isaiah, 14, and Elijah, 16, had been preparing for the trip to Philmont for two years. Their father said: “They were so excited to get on a train. But after what happened, I don’t know if they’ll want to take one back.
After the cars came to a stop, scout troop leaders immediately began sorting other people inside the caboose and trying to calm them down, according to Awe. Some wrote passengers’ names and dates of birth on their forearms so that emergency personnel could see them when they arrived.
Awe, who suffered three fractured vertebrae, must have had a phrase from the Boy Scouts’ oath in mind immediately after the accident, “to help others at all times”. Resuming his role as activity advisor to the Boy Scout troop during the trip, he began texting a group of parents to let them know they had been in a train wreck.
“I kind of drugged myself in the back of the train to get out of the way,” Awe said, adding that another troop leader, Dr. Sanjay Chopra, an emergency room physician from Wisconsin, was screaming on the floor.
“He has broken ribs, bruised lungs and possibly a broken wrist. And a woman, I think her name was Aurora, all wrapped up in the luggage compartment. Another woman—I don’t know her name—was 70 years old; she moaned. She was hurt enough. There were a lot of people who were much worse,” Awe said.
Awe said that after he was carried out of the caboose on a spine board, he was laid on the rails and could see more scout troops helping others. Again, to make sure the parents in Wisconsin knew their sons were okay, he asked each boy to come see him so he could text their parents or have them call home.
Fortunately, according to physician Marshall Jack Uhrig, MD, Awe shouldn’t experience paralysis and likely won’t require surgery for his injuries. Awe plans to see a spine specialist when he gets home and was to be discharged in a specially fitted back brace.
Uhrig developed a special “Boy Scout bond” with Awe as he assessed him after his admission to Fitzgibbon.
“I was trying to get information and get an idea of what happened. Knowing that he had been to Philmont and hiked in the mountains a few days before, and now he was in so much pain. He really has something wrong,” Uhrig said. “Having been a scoutmaster myself, even for a very short time, and having been to Philmont with my own father, I can relate.”
After the initial assessment on Monday evening, Uhrig brought some of his old Boy Scout badges to Awe the next morning and asked him to share them with the troop members in recognition of their bravery through the ordeal.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Uhrig said, smiling as he leaned down to shake Awe’s hand.
After suggesting that it seemed like Awe always seemed to help others — even amidst the chaos of the disaster — he fought back tears again.
“I just know how it was…even for those few minutes…when I didn’t know my kids were okay.” And I just wanted all the other parents to know that,” he said.
Awe was taken to Fitzgibbon Hospital with another injured passenger in the same ambulance, while his boys were taken with other members of Troop 73 to a school in Columbia until arrangements could be made. for their return trip.
On Tuesday night, Awe said everyone in Troop 73 was either home or en route, except for himself and Dr. Chopra. He also wanted to give special thanks to Tonya Ford and Johanna Cox, the moms of Troop 6 at Columbia, who provided snacks and drinks for the Troop’s trip home from Wisconsin.
When asked what he could have learned from this experience, Awe didn’t hesitate to answer.
“How amazing people can be. People take on challenges… and how compassionate people can be: people here in this region. People were pulling ladders from their backyards to help people get off the train. I’m humbled by compassion and humanity, because you just don’t see enough of it.
As for Awe, he said Fitzgibbon’s doctors and nurses took good care of him and the staff were very kind and accommodating. He kept repeating that his result could have been much worse.
He added that he could see his boys and troop members had “applied what they learned” as Scouts.
“I know these boys were tired after hiking at camp. And you don’t sleep much on the train. But they did their best to apply what they learned and help others in need,” Awe said. “It was a very beautiful thing to see.”