‘I wasn’t 100% convinced I was not dead’: Mo. battalion chief finds meaning in Amtrak crash
In a matter of minutes, Kansas City Battalion Chief Todd Covington went from survivor to rescuer in June Amtrak train derailment
By Eric Adler
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — All but buried alive, Todd Covington — his body enveloped in dirt, rock and blackness — was unsure if he was living or dead.
A Navy veteran and Kansas City firefighter for 26 years, Covington had only moments before made his way to the restroom in the cafe, downstairs from his seat in the observation car of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, when he heard the train’s engineer blare his horn.
Instead of the short burst of sound locomotives usually make before a crossing, this blast at what he would come to know was the Mendon crossing seemed longer, more sustained, like the engineer was leaning on the horn, and Covington wondered why.
Then, as he put it, his world literally went sideways, triggering a series of events that would only solidify a Stoic philosophy — life happens, your only choice is in how you respond — that Covington said he has adopted from years of witnessing just how random and fragile life can be.
“As far as change me?” Covington said of the June 27 accident. “If anything, it highlights the fact that life is short, and take nothing for granted. And I do mean nothing. There were 243 of us that were on that train making plans. And then life happened.”
Covington, 49, is a battalion chief, whose duties include safety at the soon-to-open new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. His plan that day, along with firefighting colleague Joseph Disciacca, had been to attend a class in Chicago put on by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, relevant to the terminal.
At 42 minutes after noon — carrying 270 passengers and 12 crew — the Southwest Chief slammed at near 89 miles per hour into the side of a dump truck, smashing it into a shower of pieces, and killing its driver.
Covington, who had just entered the restroom on the left side of the train, felt the jolt. The bathroom assembly broke away from the frame of the train. What was a wall became a ceiling. The door flew open.
“At that point,” Covington recalled, “ I told myself, and this is exactly what I said, ‘Holy f- - - , we’re derailing.’ Now the entire world is on its side.”
Even as the train fell over, it plowed forward with momentum. Its toppled 85-foot-long cars, skidding on their right sides, churned up dirt and sharp stones, made scalding hot by the train’s friction.
Covington, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, wearing shorts and sneakers, was trapped. Hot rock and dirt pummeled him, cutting into his legs as debris flooded into the bathroom, slowly mounting, burying him from his ankles to his calves and then his knees.
“It’s hitting me while I’m holding on, one-handed, to the frame of the train trying to pull myself up,” Covington recalled.
The toppled compartment went pitch black and grew hot. The force of the gathering rock was so violent it twisted his body.
“At that point I had to let go or it was going to break my back,” Covington said. Then there was the sound.
“I’ve explained this to a number of people,” he said. “Everyone thinks that when trains derail that there’s this giant screeching of metal and, you know, all this horrific crash noise. And that’s not it at all. That did not happen. There was one loud crunch. And that’s when the train hit the dump truck. And then after that, it was just deafening sound of rock and gravel flying in at me … It was literally deafening.”
He also had a thought: This is how he would die.
He didn’t panic. “There’s nothing I could do about it. It was out of my control,” Covington said.
But he knew that, in the Navy and as a firefighter, he had escaped death a number of times. He’d worked perhaps 1,000 fires. He’d had friends die and been the deliverer of horrible news, telling others their loved-ones were dead. Covington believes in fate and destiny and that there is a God with plans, even if those plans are beyond his understanding.
“And so,” Covington said, “I just figured, ‘Oh, this is how this is going to work out. … This is where my life ends.”
But then the train came to rest. All was black around him. He questioned: Am I alive?
“After the train actually stopped … I wasn’t 100% convinced that I was not dead,” he said.
So he did what he called a quick assessment. Left hand, right hand. His feet and legs were buried, but he could feel them. Then one more thing:
“I actually did slap myself,” he said. Right hand, right cheek.
“I had full-on expected to perish,” Covington explained, “so the fact that I didn’t, I just wanted to make sure.
“I’ve never been dead before. I’ve been close, but not dead. So I gave myself a little smack. And then I felt it. So, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m not dead. Now I have to get out of here.’”
So he did. The dirt was up to his hamstrings. The compartment was hot. There was little oxygen.
“I knew I had to get out of there quick,” Covington said. He could see tiny pinholes of light poking through to the compartment. Using his fingers, he dug, pulling and pushing the dirt until he could pull himself out.
As soon as he did, he saw a woman. She was dead, her body mangled and twisted in the dirt. He knew who she was. He had passed her in the cafe on the way to the restroom. Covington found an emergency window exit, released its latch, and climbed to what was now the top of the train.
“The very first thing that I saw at the top of the train was her daughter,” Covington recalled. “And her daughter says, ‘We have to get my mom. She is right there!’”
Covington was direct. He has had the sad job before of informing people of a loved one’s death.
“There is no easy way to do it,” Covington said.
“I was trying to be as tactful as possible,” he explained, “but, at the same time, you have to be matter-of-fact when it comes to dealing with death. … You definitely don’t want to beat around the bush. You want to make sure they understand that there is no chance of them coming back, because then you’re giving false hope. That’s more emotionally damaging than the actual truth.”
So, he said, he told her: “Honey, your mother is dead. We’re getting off this train.”
“She was beside herself, that poor woman,” Covington recalled. “I mean, she’s like, ‘No, no, she’s not dead. We have to check for a pulse.’ And so I just told her, ‘I’m a Kansas City firefighter. And I can tell you that she has not survived.’”
Once out of the train, Covington went from survivor to rescuer. He looked around and saw “pandemonium.” He didn’t know what other potential hazards existed.
“Everyone’s yelling and screaming that they need a medic, that we had people injured. I mean people are running around. It was utter chaos,” he said. “My number one goal was to start getting everyone off the train.”
Covington quickly tried to assess how much possible rescue equipment — axes, crowbars, ladders — the train might have. He spotted a Boy Scout about to wield a sledgehammer to break a train window. He stopped him cold.
“I told him, ‘If you hit that window you’re going to f- - - ing die,” Covington said. “He said, ‘We need to break these out.’ I told him, ‘Kid, these windows are designed to withstand pressure. So if you hit that, that sledgehammer is going to bounce back and hit you in the head and you’re going to die.’”
A scout master approached. Covington, wearing a green KCFD hat, explained he was a firefighter.
“OK, what do you need?” he said the Scout Leader asked. “I said, ‘That’s the best question someone’s asked me all day.’”
Off-duty battalion chief praises Boy Scouts' response to Amtrak crash
Mo. firefighter Todd Covington described the derailment and aftermath, saying, the scouts "probably saved 20 or 30 people's lives"
Scouts were dispatched to help people off the trains. Covington came across Disciacca, his firefighting colleague, who also went into emergency mode. They established a staging area. Covington, meanwhile, went from car to car to get a count of injured passengers and crew unable to leave the train.
Among them, Covinginton said, was a man reportedly trapped under the train, a lady who could not feel her legs, another man with blunt force trauma to his abdomen who would be among the three passengers who died of their injuries.
Local firefighters and paramedics soon arrived. Helicopters whirred overhead.
Covington and Disciacca returned to the inside of the train to double check which cars were clear. Atop the train, Covington used a crowbar to etch the letter “X” into the metal of the cars to mark them as empty.
“Finally, an actual battalion chief showed up,” Covington said. “I get down, told him everything, and then, after that, I handed it over to him, grabbed my backpack and walked to the staging area.
“Then I was done with it.”
“There have been some things,” Covington said. “I don’t want to talk about them with you guys, but, I mean, there’s like with everything, there’s always aftermath that you have to deal with. But I’m working through that, and slowly.”
In July, the Kansas City City Council passed a resolution recognizing both Covington and Disciacca for their heroism.
“I’m somewhat stoical in the fact that it’s a terrible situation,” Covington said. “I couldn’t control the train crashing. I can only control my response to it … make the best of a really, really shitty situation. Nothing more, nothing less.
“All you have is your right now. Live in the minute, because the next one, that is not promised to you, and the last one is gone.
“You don’t get that back.”
Former Star intern Noelle Alviz-Gransee contributed to this report.