Amtrak crash victims face a slow recovery. A fellow survivor shares his story

The Amtrak derailment outside of DuPont on Monday brought back memories for another train crash survivor, Joshua Gotbaum of Washington, D.C. “When I heard they hadn’t yet installed positive train control,” he said, “I was appalled.”
The Amtrak derailment outside of DuPont on Monday brought back memories for another train crash survivor, Joshua Gotbaum of Washington, D.C. “When I heard they hadn’t yet installed positive train control,” he said, “I was appalled.” sbloom@theolympian.com

The passengers who boarded Amtrak 501 for its inaugural run Monday didn’t envision their lives changing with that one trip.

For the survivors of the derailment near DuPont and those connected to the three men killed, it’s a long road ahead, physically and financially.

Amtrak has told Gov. Jay Inslee it will pay the costs associated with the response to the derailment and for the medical and other expenses of the victims.

Amtrak’s cap for liabilities in such disasters is set at $295 million in total for all plaintiffs.

Beyond that, answers are far outnumbered by questions, such as how much is paid to each person, when the money will come and how insurance benefits are factored in.

Joshua Gotbaum knows this winding road all too well.

He was a passenger on Amtrak 188 the evening of May 12, 2015, when it derailed going a little over 100 mph in a 50 mph zone of curved tracks in Philadelphia.

In that derailment, eight people were killed and more than 200 hurt.

The similarities in the two accidents are eerie, Gotbaum told The News Tribune in a phone interview from the East Coast on Friday, just days after The Washington Post published his op-ed on his experience surviving such a crash.

Asked his advice to the survivors of Amtrak 501 his answer came slowly as he carefully considered the question.

“My advice would be if you were injured, get a lawyer,” Gotbaum said. “But don’t necessarily take the first one you find.”

In addition, he said:

▪ “Read anything from Amtrak quite carefully before signing it.”

▪ “Talk to your congressman about getting rid of the liability limit.”

▪ “Recognize some injuries don’t show up as cuts and bleeding. It is very normal after an experience like this to go through flashbacks, depression, anxiety, etc. That can happen weeks or months later.”

▪ “Lots of things can trigger (PTSD), so when it happens get help. Don’t think being strong means keeping it to yourself.”

For Gotbaum, his own derailment experience was a night of mass confusion. It was just before 9:30 that night, and the accident happened in an instant.

“From the time I heard the screech to the time I realized the car was turning sideways and we were going off the rails — that was 3 seconds,” he said.

Emergency crews used ladders to get passengers off the train, he recalled, “then they triaged us. People in really bad shape were put into ambulances, those in medium bad shape were put in police cars and vans, those who thought they were OK were sent to city hospitals.”

At the time Gotbaum thought he was OK, but he went to the hospital to be checked out. He turned to have scratched corneas, broken ribs and a damaged knee.

“By 10:30 or 11,” he recalled, “I’m at the hospital with a lot of other people, given a tetanus shot, X-rays, etc.”

Gotbaum said he’d yet to hear from anyone at Amtrak.

“About 2 or 3 in the morning someone from Amtrak shows up at the hospital. She explains her job is just to put me in a cab to send me back to the rail station.”

At the station, he saw Red Cross workers and “a person or two” from Amtrak.

“It became clear they hadn’t prepared to the point they didn’t have forms,” he said. “They made up forms to report who you were and what your medical issues were.”

He eventually got a call from an Amtrak representative, “saying they wanted to confirm my mailing address and to send me a claim form for baggage.”

He hopes those involved in Monday’s derailment will have a smoother process for recovery.

The current co-CEO is Richard Anderson, former CEO of Delta ... one hopes he turns Amtrak into an organization that really cares about its passengers,” Gotbaum said.

How did he get his own life back together after the accident?

“I got high-intensity painkillers, my wife air-shipped a suit and I showed up for a talk in New York that Thursday, a day and a half later,” he said.

Recovery, he said, involved “living in a chaise lounge” for a time and juggling between using the painkillers “and not wanting to be drugged.”

He eventually received a knee replacement.

Getting back to anything close to normal, he said, took about a year.

Despite lingering concerns over safety issues involving train travel, “I still use Amtrak,” Gotbaum said.

But, “if the train jiggles, I get nervous.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell