‘I’m a miracle’: Father who survived Amtrak derailment shares story
The memories come in terrible flashes. First the wildly rocking train car woke him from his nap. He stood and saw as the cars ahead left the track. He grabbed his 12-year-old son and told him it was going to get rough. That all took maybe three seconds, he says. A loud noise. Then nothing.
The next memory is of rain falling on his face as he lay on the freeway below the train overpass.
“At that moment, it was as if I had just come back to life,” he recalls. “I’m on the freeway but I don’t know how I got on the freeway.”
Donnell Linton, 45, and his son Quincy were heading to Eugene, Oregon, to visit his daughter and newborn granddaughter on Dec. 18, 2017. It would be his second visit since the baby’s birth earlier in the month. He and Quincy decided to take the train so they could get in three extra days of baby cuddles before his girlfriend’s vacation started and she joined them.
On its inaugural run on a new route, the train Donnell and Quincy were on derailed at a curve on an overpass in DuPont. They were among 62 passengers and crewmembers injured. Three more passengers died.
Severely injured, Donnell would be treated by MultiCare trauma specialists Roy Semlacher, MD, and Joseph Shvidler, MD. His injuries would require hours of major reconstructive surgery and weeks of hospitalization.
Back on the freeway in the rain, drifting in and out of consciousness, all Donnell could focus on was his son.
“He had a look in his eyes like, ‘Dad, what are we going to do?’”
That was the last Donnell saw of him for hours.
In the chaos, father and son separated
Two nurses were in one of the cars passing by on the freeway and they quickly jumped into action to assist the injured passengers. When the first witnesses reached him, Quincy was still in his father’s arms. They took Quincy to help both father and son. Both had suffered concussions and facial injuries.
“He wasn’t fine, but he was able to walk,” Donnell says of his son. “Once I woke up I just remember a lady there with me saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, don’t move.’”
A former firefighter, Donnell had been through many drills involving multiple casualty incidents.
“Now I’m part of the drill. I’m in it,” he recalls thinking. “I’ve got to let these people know I have a son here.”
The nurses and first responders assured him they would find Quincy. Donnell had no idea how badly injured he was himself.
“My son said I looked like Frankenstein,” he says.
His upper jaw was in the position where his lower jaw should be. He had multiple facial fractures and major head trauma. But the pain was in his thigh.
In the ambulance ride and once he reached the hospital, Donnell drifted in and out of consciousness. Each time he woke he told caregivers two things: He needed to find his son and he was afraid he’d broken his femur. (He hadn’t. But he had an extremely large hematoma on his thigh.)
Quincy had been transported to a different hospital. In the chaos of the accident scene and the urgency of caring for Donnell’s injuries, it took more than an hour for him to get word that Quincy had been located.
“I was so happy,” he says. “The nurse said, ‘We’ve found your son and your son says you’re a hero, that you saved his life.’”
A rare, complex surgery
Indeed, Donnell took the brunt of the injuries. Quincy was released after four days but had to wear a face mask to protect his face from further injury. Donnell would be hospitalized for weeks with his jaw wired shut and major reconstructive surgery to his face.
Donnell’s surgery was performed by Dr. Shvidler and Dr. Semlacher, both MultiCare surgeons with trauma and reconstructive surgery backgrounds. Dr. Shvidler also has a background in military medicine and experience with mass casualty events.
It had been quite a while since either of them had seen injuries like Donnell’s.
“Nowadays it’s a rare occurrence to see injuries of this extent,” Dr. Shvidler says. “A decade ago in trauma training, we would see a lot of motor vehicle accidents with horrific facial injuries. But because of increased car safety, we rarely see these injuries anymore.”
Nearly all the bones in Donnell’s face were shattered, says Dr. Shvidler. Because of all the swelling, the surgeons even had to perform a tracheotomy on Donnell to provide a temporary airway.
It took extensive planning on the part of both surgeons to come up with a road map for the surgery, which took 7-8 hours.
“We approached it in a structured way as if we were building a house,” says Dr. Shvidler. “We rebuilt the foundation of the face one level at a time and used small plates and screws to repair fractures through small, minimally invasive openings.”
It was truly a team effort, says Dr. Shvidler, and it’s one that Donnell is grateful for.
“It was heaven sent that I got the doctors that I did because they did all the plates and reconstruction of my skull from inside my mouth,” he says. “They saved my life. It was hairy. I had dissections in my arteries. It’s incredible that I’m functional.”
Going home and looking forward
After getting out of the hospital, Donnell had to make multiple visits to see Dr. Shvidler at MultiCare Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Tacoma to work on the scar around his eye and get stitches removed.
“But main thing was my mouth was wired shut,” he says.
First they removed the wires, replacing them with rubber bands, and finally a trip to Tacoma General to have the screws surgically removed.
“It was very interesting when I first started eating after I was on soup for two months,” he says.
Donnell graduated from soup to soft foods.
“My first meal was macaroni and cheese,” he says.
That’s where he remains, with braces now to correct his bite after the damage from the accident.
And while both he and Quincy continue their recovery, Donnell knows they are fortunate.
“I’m a miracle,” he says. “I’m just happy to be breathing, walking and talking. There were people that passed away. People that can’t walk right now. I’m just grateful to be alive and functional.”
MultiCare Senior Content Editor Roxanne Cooke contributed to this story.
About The Author
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author