‘It was heartwarming’: Passengers recall community response after Amtrak derailment

Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 7:09 PM EST
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BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. (WNDU) - 16 News Now is continuing to look into the chaotic overnight Amtrak train ride that ended in a crash and derailment in Berrien County.

Thankfully, travelers were not majorly injured in the crash and derailment.

Those involved in last night’s harrowing event say they had some guardian angels watching over them and that the response from locals was nothing short of heroic.

“Firefighters were like handing out water, I heard someone who was like, ‘Does anyone need medical attention?’ I don’t know if he was a doctor or not, but he was just trying to help,” said Maya Mikelson, a passenger on the train. “It was like we were all in this together. If it was just me or a couple of other people, I think I would’ve gotten more panicked, but everyone was there as a community.”

The passenger train started in Pontiac, Michigan, a northwestern suburb of Detroit, and was heading to Chicago’s Union Station, but it never made it as the train derailed near the intersection of Lakeside Road and US-12 when it struck two vehicles that were stuck on the tracks.

“Everyone was asking if everyone was okay; everyone was kind of just checking in with everyone, which was like really cool - and no one was a stranger anymore, everyone was really comfortable to talk to whoever because of the circumstances,” added friend Lily Geis, who traveling with Mikelson. “I think if I wasn’t with Maya and our other two friends, I would’ve been completely at a loss. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

Of the more than 200 people on board, there were six people transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, prompting Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit to say that it’s a miracle the train didn’t tip over and seriously injure or kill a passenger.

“I’m from Texas, so I kind of remember when Hurricane Harvey happened, our school was closed, and they took in people from the hurricane, and our situation wasn’t that dire, but it just kind of reminded me of that and just like coming together, and these people - I probably didn’t even know New Buffalo existed before this,” Mikelson said. “But it was just really nice that we were able to go there and wait, and her mom came and got us, and other people waited for buses and family. It was heartwarming.”

While the scoreboard at New Buffalo’s gym might say home and guest, the New Buffalo community made sure everyone felt at home last night, as school district buses took stranded passengers to New Buffalo High School, which served as an emergency shelter, providing a little comfort in a time of need.

“It was a community event; it was a great opportunity for us to help out total strangers in need,” said Tracy Ripley, principal of New Buffalo High School. “Not just the school community but also our firefighters, our volunteer student firefighters, our local police force, our county-wide police force; everybody jumped in to give a hand, and it just speaks volumes for what we stand for. New Buffalo is a small community, but particularly, I can speak about the school. We are ‘Bison Strong,’ and we are a family, and so when anyone in this community needs something, we’re all willing to jump in and help, and that was greatly displayed Thursday night. I actually met some people last night that I have obviously never met in my life. There were teachers in the group, there were people traveling to go see games, they were going to see family, and just having two hours to sit and visit with them and make sure they were okay. It was a great experience; it was a great way to take something negative and turn it into a positive.”

It’s still unclear if this crash and derailment could’ve been avoided, as Amtrak says they weren’t informed the cars were on the tracks.

The crash remains under investigation.