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'I saw death and destruction': Passenger recalls train crash

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HELENA — An Oregon man said he survived a recent train derailment in Montana by holding onto a grab bar in the bathroom of a passenger car that ended up on its side and separated from the rest of the train.

“I was on the left side (of the train car) and looking down at the ground,” Justin Ruddell, of Klamath Falls, said Thursday. “The outside door was peeled open and the bathroom door, the lock failed for whatever reason, and it flew open.”

Ruddell said he could see all the gravel and dirt outside getting scooped up into the car as it was skidding down the side of the tracks.

“If I would have let go, I would have fell down and out that door and got crushed by the train or ground up in the dirt," he said.

Ruddell, 40, said he suffered two broken vertebrae, five broken ribs and strained arm muscles “from hanging on for dear life,” during the Sept. 25 derailment near Joplin, Montana. He said he hit his head on something and has jaw pain that makes it difficult to eat. Ruddell spent five days in the hospital in Kalispell.

“I saw death and destruction around me that I will never be able to forget,” he said in a statement.

Ruddell said he had traveled from Oregon to Maine a week earlier with the ashes of a friend who had died in 2019. He was between jobs and had been thinking about his friend this summer when he decided to make the trip.

“I’d always promised my friend that me and him was going to go to the East Coast," Ruddell said. “That was one of our goals. Something we talked about quite a bit and was never able to make happen.”

“So I took his ashes that were in a glass piece that somebody made for me, to the East Coast, and went and walked out into the ocean, and kept my promise to him and saw the Atlantic Ocean with him. We saw it together and we were on our way home and that’s when that train got derailed.”

Ruddell was helped out of the train car, but he refused to get off the side of the car, which was now facing up, without his friend's ashes.

A woman who was on the train remembered where he was sitting and went back in and grabbed his bag, which contained the ashes, Ruddell said.

Ruddell is one of four passengers who filed lawsuits in federal court in Chicago against Amtrak and BNSF Railway on Thursday claiming the companies were negligent in failing to prevent the derailment. Others filing on Thursday were Matt Johnson, 40, of Seattle and Stuart and Karen Dixon, both of Berwyn, Pennsylvania, Clifford Law Offices said.

At least a dozen passengers have filed lawsuits over physical and psychological injuries suffered in the derailment. Amtrak and BSNF have declined to comment on pending litigation.

Ruddell said the pain due to his injuries is “unbelievable,” that he’s having a hard time sleeping and was unable to work at a mechanic job he was planning to start when he returned from his trip.

The Amtrak train that derailed consisted of two locomotives, a baggage car and nine passenger cars and was carrying nearly 160 people. Three people died and at least seven others were injured badly enough to have to be hospitalized.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the derailment.

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