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Amtrak derailment survivor shares story of his recovery

82-year-old Rudi Wetzel survived a long career as a Los Angeles Police Officer, but last December he also survived a terrifying Amtrak derailment.
Credit: Photo submitted by: Rudi Wetzel

Rudi Wetzel loves to ride the train. That’s why the 82-year-old was so excited when Amtrak launched the new 6 a.m. service from Seattle to Portland on Dec. 18, 2017. He was on board the very first train.

Rudi left his girlfriend’s house in the Seattle metro area and jumped on the train headed for his farm in Centralia. Everything was smooth until just before the 8 a.m. hour when Amtrak 501 derailed.

“It’s just total shock. I thought initially it was an explosion,” Wetzel said. “I was trying to sleep and when the crash occurred it was totally dark and I could only see a little bit.”

“The diesel locomotive was still going full bore and scared the daylights out of me,” Wetzel said. “I felt that any minute this whole thing was going to collapse on me,” he said.

Rudi’s girlfriend Lee Dorigan called him as he waited for emergency responders.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so affected by a telephone call,” Dorigan said. “I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and he said, ‘no’, which he never says. He always says, if he’s been injured on the farm, he says, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ But he said, ‘no I’m not OK.'"

Wetzel broke his back in multiple places, but the 81-year-old still managed to crawl out of the wreckage.

“And the next thing you know is they put me on a board, and put me on a four-wheeler, and drove me out to an ambulance,” Wetzel said.

He’s spent much of the last year in rehab.

"I had a broken back, two vertebrates, and I had to wear a brace during the day, not a pleasant thing, but I did it,” Rudi said. “I was a healthy person all my life and ya know, suddenly, I’m having problems walking. I had problems with vision. I had these shakes, I call them.”

Jim Vucinovich, who represents Rudi, filed a lawsuit against Amtrak on his behalf.

“He’s a survivor and he’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” Vucinovich said. “Rudi stands in this whole class of victims in a case that could have been prevented. The purpose of this is not only individual recovery, but also making the system better so it doesn’t happen again.”

Despite the difficult year Wetzel, a farmer, remains optimistic about the future.

“I would hope to increase my walking ability to at least 5 miles without being totally overwhelmed,” Rudi said. “And I’m going to be able to lift things because on my farm you’re required to lift things.”

“I want to get to the level that I was hurt but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’ve been told you are shooting too high,” Rudi added. “Be glad what you got so far.”

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