CRESCENT CITY, Fla. – When the interlocked silver cars buckled along the pine trees and sawgrass, 87-year-old Ginger Litz and her husband, Charlie, tumbled out of their bunks.
Amtrak attendant James Pierce grabbed the curtains and found himself hanging like a mountain climber. And passenger Dr. Nathan Zukerberg was tossed against the window of the tilted coach.
"It got rougher and rougher and then I bounced out of the chair," the retired pediatrician recalled Friday, blood visible through a bandage around his elbow.
They were among the 452 passengers and crew members caught in a zigzag of stainless steel when the Auto Train derailed Thursday afternoon. Four people died and 159 were injured.
Inside were elderly snowbirds traveling north for the summer. A mechanic transporting his dream car. An Amtrak general manager. A newlywed with a fear of flying headed to Washington for a re-enactment of his wedding.
For many minutes, passengers were trapped inside compartments. Emergency crews hoisted ladders atop the wreckage, and passengers pulled out windows to escape.
Crew members helped passengers who crawled and hobbled to a makeshift emergency area along the toppled pine trees near the tracks. Emergency workers strapped the injured to backboards, patched up scrapes and offered water and cell phones.
In their sleeper car, Key West snowbirds Ginger and Charlie Litz chatted about the young Georgia woman who became an instant multimillionaire when she won the lottery. An hour into their trip, it happened.
"It started with a bang. It got off the track and went bang," Ginger Litz said. "And the next one, we tilted over."
Luggage spilled, magazines and newspapers went flying and glasses slid from tables.
"I heard the squeal of the air brakes," said Lowell Gilbertson, who was traveling to his Bethesda, Md., wedding re-enactment. "I thought `Wow, we're about to hit a cow or something."'
James Pierce felt the train sway and latched onto the curtains. A moment later he was vertical. "I was literally hanging over the hallway," he said.
Dr. Zukerberg, of West Orange, N.J., was reading The Wall Street Journal when he was hurled with his traveling companion, Rhoda Neiman, against the window.
Some people yelled, but a quiet calm prevailed.
"One of the scary things is we felt isolated," said Neiman, 69, who was trapped inside for about 20 minutes. "We were yelling and nobody was responding to us."
Seeking an escape, the Litzes crawled along the sloped floor and saw a crew member open a window. "My God, we're lucky to be alive," Charlie Litz repeated to his wife.
The walking wounded made their way to an emergency center assembled at the end of a long trail of ambulances, fire trucks and first aid equipment. Along the tracks, passengers lay on backboards, their necks braced in plastic. Latex gloves littered the ground. A sheriff's chaplain comforted families.
John Chemidlin sipped a cup of water on the step of an ambulance. One of the car racks held his dream car, a new $98,000 Jaguar XKR.
"Unbelievable. First time I ever had an Amtrak ride," he said.
Among the passengers was Sharon Mahoney, general manager of Amtrak's Auto Train service. She was not injured and helped direct the rescue, the company said.
Lloyd Harris, a Crescent City resident, brought blankets and food, while his wife, Nancy, a county commissioner, helped emergency workers. Harris brought the Litzes and another couple into his home and bought them Wendy's hamburgers.
"I brought them home and got them relaxed and comfortable, let them use the phone to call their families," he said.
Those with injuries were taken to hospitals or bused to the high school. Those not injured were taken to Orlando hotels.
In the cafeteria of an Orlando hotel Friday morning, Gilbertson considered himself a lucky man.
A 49-year-old computer web developer, he wed his sweetheart in Sarasota last Sunday. His elderly parents couldn't travel, so the couple planned a small ceremony Saturday in suburban Washington.
An Amtrak regular, Gilbertson hates to fly — but he said he would make the sacrifice for his wife, Elena, who had flown north earlier.
"I'm phobic about flying," he said, "so what I need are tranquilizers and a ticket."