JBLM soldiers rescue train accident victims

By Suzanne Ovel on December 28, 2017

Just seconds after seeing the train fall into traffic on Interstate 5, 2nd Lt. Robert McCoy rushed out of his car to run toward the train car now dangling from the overpass.

He was driving home from physical training when the Amtrak train derailed just south of DuPont, Dec. 18. A platoon leader in the 62nd Medical Brigade at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, McCoy was soon joined by other Good Samaritans on the scene including Maj. Michael Livingston, a registered nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center, and Lt. Col. Christopher Sloan, Madigan's deputy commander for administration.

"We all had the idea that that car was going to fall, and there were people in it," said Livingston.

His first priority was to help move the passengers who were underneath the dangling car, having been ejected during the accident. He then joined McCoy, who had found a way to scale a semi, get on top of another downed rail car and then climb into the car still hanging from the overpass. Sloan joined them in the car to help rescue the passengers still inside.

"The seats were everywhere. There was luggage everywhere. It was chaos and people needed guidance, and they needed help," said Sloan.

The soldiers helped the passengers navigate through the tilted car, strewn luggage and shifted overhead racks to safely exit the car.

"We were there to provide care and compassion, and we were there to take care of people and address what they needed," said Sloan.

He recalled one passenger with a broken bone who was trapped underneath a seat. The soldiers lifted the seat up, pulled her out inch by inch, and got her to sit up.

"Then she took a breath, and said ‘I'm going to be okay,'" said Sloan.

None of the soldiers on scene questioned their impulse to run toward the accident and help the injured passengers.

"These could've been our neighbors or people that I knew," said Livingston. "I just knew that people were going to need lots of help and I had to get up there."

They saw other impromptu rescuers, including Madigan nurse Tanya Porter, help as well.

"I look back and I'm thankful that I was able to be placed in that situation; I'm thankful for all of the individuals, the first responders, the civilians, (and) the other military individuals who were able to come together and support the community," said McCoy.

Once ambulances were able to get to the scene, emergency medical services took over and transported the passengers to hospitals throughout the area, including Madigan. Altogether, Madigan treated 19 patients from the accident for conditions including spinal fractures, head lacerations and abdominal injuries.

The hospital began prepping for massive casualties as soon as they heard about the accident -- stopping elective surgeries, sending current emergency room patients to inpatient floors, and readying themselves to begin treating the passengers.

"Most of us have been deployed, and we have experienced mass casualty scenarios. This is something that we rehearsed for, and this is something that many of us have experienced in combat, and so I think it helped us and we were very ready for this scenario," said Lt. Col. Vance Sohn, Madigan's program director of general surgery.

While the 19 patients were treated in the emergency room, clinics, surgery or intensive care, Madigan staff members were prepared to care for many more passengers, given the extent of the accident. Located just six miles from the accident scene, the hospital was prepared to care for at least 70 patients, said Lt. Col. Carl Skinner, Madigan's chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine.

The staff counted it as very fortunate that the actual number of injured passengers was much lower than that, said Emily Phillips, a registered nurse team lead in Madigan's Primary Care Service Line.

"It was nothing short of a miracle," she said.