George looked over at his wife, Gertrude. The train car where their seats were located was quickly filling with water. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he told her.
“I’m scared George,” she admitted to her husband of forty years.
“We’ve been through lots of things before and survived. Surely by the grace of God we can make it through this one too,” he told her.
“How are we going to get out of this train?” Gertrude asked him. “The door is downstairs.”
“I remember. We’ve either got to get out one of the doors up here, or get out a window,” he said, looking around.
“We already tried to open the windows,” she reminded him. “They won’t budge.”
“Maybe we can break one out,” he suggested.
By now they were standing on the seats with only a small air pocket trapped at the top of the ceiling.
“I think it would be better to swim to the end of this car. There must be a way to get out from there,” he said, not feeling as sure as he was trying to sound.
She grabbed his arm. “I’m scared. Don’t leave me. You’re all I’ve got.”
George smiled at the love of his life. “I love you too,” he told her. “I won’t go without you. When we step off of these seats we’ll have to swim. We’re close to the back, and I thought I saw someone go that way already.”
They swam to the end, and found more seats to stand on. The door was completely under water, with only a few inches of air remaining at the top of the car. George knew he had to make sure the passage was clear before he could let Gertrude follow him.
He told her, “Wait right here. I’ll duck down and make sure the door is open, then come right back to you.”
“Don’t leave me George,” she whispered.
“As soon as I check the door I’ll be right back.” He tried to reassure her with a smile. It must have worked because she relaxed her grip on his arm.
George took a breath and ducked below the water surface. He couldn’t see anything, but it felt like the door was open a few inches. He found the door handle and pushed it. The door slid into its slot on the side with little effort. For some reason, once the door was open he could see that nothing was further blocking their escape path from the train car. Then it dawned on him that there might be a fire on the surface, illuminating the water. He looked around under water and could see where the light ended, maybe not too far away. He pulled himself back into the train car and surfaced beside Gertrude. The air pocket seemed to still be about the same size.
“I think we can make it,” he assured her. “Fortunately this train car is detached from those behind it. The cars probably disconnected when we landed in the water. When we get out of the train, swim past the light under water. There must be a fire on the surface.”
“Can we make it?” she asked him, with what sounded like panic in her voice.
“Of course,” he said. “God loves us. I love you. What more do we need?”
Her smile at hearing those words let him know that she was willing to try escaping with him. “I love you too,” she told him.
“Take a deep breath, and swim left past the light when you get out the door. I’ll be right behind you all the way,” he assured her.
“What if I can’t make it?” she asked.
“You will make it. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Go all the way out and to the surface. Remember our kids in Florida that we’re going to visit – they want to see their mom.”
“I’m scared,” she told him.
“It’s just like swimming in the pool. You used to love swimming underwater. Just think what a story this will make back home at church – George and Gertrude start out on a train, and end up swimming to Florida.”
She smiled at his attempt at humor.
“Race you,” she said, taking a deep breath and ducking under the water.
George ducked under the water also and could no longer see Gertrude or anything else. Under the water the train was again dark. He pushed through the door and turned left. He prayed that Gertrude had also done so. A foot kicked his hand out in the water, and he prayed that it was his wife’s foot and that she had gone the right way.
His lungs were starting to scream for oxygen. “Help me Jesus. Help Gertrude too,” he prayed.
There was still light on the surface. He ducked down lower in the water and could see someone swimming in front of him. Pushing himself on and on, he found the end of the light. He surfaced and looked around. Gertrude was treading water close by, pushing her gray hair out of her eyes.
“Are you OK?” he asked her.
“We made it,” she said with relief in her voice. “I wasn’t sure I could still hold my breath that long.”
“See, I told you this train ride to Florida would be an adventure.”
“We’re not out of the water yet,” she reminded him.
“Let’s swim this way,” George told her, “Away from the fire burning that way. The shore looks like its not too far either way.”
He saw a barge nearby that was pulling some people out of the water, but it looked too tall to make it easy to climb on board.
“Should we go to the barge?” Gertrude asked.
“We can make it to shore. That will be easier.” Soon he felt his feet touching soft mud, and the water quickly got shallower. “I can reach bottom.”
They climbed out of the water and mud, and sat shivering on the bank in the cool fog. They were shocked by the horror of the sights that they were seeing. Several other train passengers joined them, and also sat quietly watching the fire burn. People were slowly making their way out of the water.
After ensuring that Gertrude was safe, George began helping swimmers climb out of the slippery mud along the water’s edge.
Eventually a young man made his way to the shore, and George pulled him up. “Are you OK?” George asked him.
The young man had a wild look in his eyes, as panic stole over his features. “Jackson, Anna,” he mumbled.
“Are you hurt?” George repeated.
“Jackson, Anna, have you seen them?” the young man asked.
“I’ve only seen the folks sitting here,” George told him, trying to comfort him. “I’ve seen folks on the other side climbing out of the water, and there’s some folks on that barge over there.”
A few minutes later he heard the young man pleading, “I can’t go back. I can’t.”
George couldn’t tell if the young man was talking to him, or was just babbling in the beginnings of shock. George told him, “Sit here for a minute, and then maybe you can go look for them.”
“I can’t. I can’t go back,” the young man mumbled again.
George turned to other passengers that were swimming and splashing their way to the edge of the waterway. He glanced quickly at Gertrude, who smiled at him, assuring him that she was OK, and that he should continue to help folks get out of the water.
George could see what looked like several bodies floating in the water, not moving. He shuddered, then continued with the task of helping those within reach who needed his help. When one of the still bodies floated close to shore, George and another man pulled it up onto the bank. It had been a young woman.
Looking up toward the bridge, George could see one of the passenger cars still dangling off the end of the bridge. He heard one of the Amtrak conductors in it blowing a whistle to get the attention of swimming passenger’s in the water. The conductor was trying to direct them to swim to the area where George and Gertrude were. Through the fog, it looked like many other passengers were exiting off the rear of the train. A lot of those were being helped to walk, and George heard crying and screaming in the distance. He offered up a prayer, “Jesus, please help those that are injured. Thank you for getting us safely to shore. Show me how best to help those who need my help.”
“Amen,” Gertrude said.