‘It was very violent’: Wisconsin couple safe after being part of Amtrak derailment

MARKESAN, Wis. – A couple from Markesan are making their way back home to Wisconsin after being on the Amtrak train that derailed Saturday — an experience they won’t soon forget.

The Empire Builder makes stops in the Madison area, including Portage, Wisconsin Dells and Columbus. Carrie and Keith Schoeffling hopped on in Columbus Friday night, heading west to Seattle.

“It was actually a beautiful ride,” Carrie said of the first leg of the journey.

A trip where they planned to cherish every view soon brought sights and sounds they never thought they’d encounter when the train derailed in rural Montana.

“It was very violent,” Carrie said. “Things were flying around.”

“My first recollection getting out of the car was there’s people screaming, yelling,” Keith said. “In the back of my mind I wonder if they were in the process of dying.”

Three people died. Carrie and Keith said at the time of the derailment, at least one of those three, a 28-year-old from Illinois, was in the observation car which they were about to visit.

“Probably just a few minutes, we would’ve been there, been in that car,” Carrie said.

There were injuries in Carrie and Keith’s car, which went off the tracks but didn’t flip. They were able to walk away OK.

“As soon as we looked out the door — they had to pry the door open on one side of our car — and you could see cars scattered a half a mile back,” Carrie said. “People screaming. It was bad.”

“You can’t do anything,” Keith said. “You’re completely helpless.”

When things feel helpless, that’s when the helpers arrive.

“It was amazing watching that all fall into place,” Keith said. “We were literally in the middle of nowhere.”

Almost out of nowhere, help came: men with trucks and ladders even before EMTs and an Amtrak waitress who was in the dining car when it tipped.

“She crawled out of there, helped people out of there, hauling luggage, passing out water, finding blankets for people,” Carrie said. “She was dirty and bleeding, still running around taking care of people.”

“It wasn’t just crew members,” Keith said. “It was passengers frantically doing everything.”

Passengers were taken to a gym in the small town of Chester, where again, help was in no short supply.

“They just poured all this stuff on us,” Carrie said.

That included drinks, snacks and clothing, along with a pharmacy providing lost prescription medication.

“We saw stuff like that all night, like oh that guy got shoes, the little girl has a stuffed animal now and she was crying,” Carrie said. “The people there were just terrific.”

They’re memories to hold onto when others are tough to forget.

“It’s going to affect me a long time, no doubt about it,” Keith said.

They don’t plan to get on a train in the near future, but said Amtrak is paying for their travel in a car back home.