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CNN correspondent recounts living through a train wreck

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 1:47 PM EST, Tue December 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robertson was a new college graduate, on his way to his first job in 1984
  • The train he was on went off the tracks on a curve and his car flipped on its side
  • He later found out the engineer was speeding

New York (CNN) -- My bags were packed, and I'd waved goodbye to my parents at the train station in Dundee, Scotland. It was the summer of 1984, and I was on my way to start my first job.

We've all been there: young, ready for adventure and eager for what the world will bring.

It was a warm summer evening. I was excited, still buzzed by my college graduation ceremony days earlier. I'd had my pick of jobs and I chose to become a broadcast engineer. What could possibly go wrong? Barely two hours later, I would find out.

As the train pulled out of the station, past the rusting remains of the infamous 19th century Tay bridge disaster, it didn't occur to me that over 100 years later, trains could be so dangerous. Back then, the bridge collapsed as a train rolled across it in December of 1879, throwing the wagons and more than 70 passengers to a watery grave.

When we got to Edinburgh, my train was delayed. It didn't matter to me. I settled into the bed in the tiny sleeper compartment. London was still eight hours away and tomorrow I'd begin my new job. I needed sleep.

When eventually we pulled out of Edinburgh, I knew the engineer was trying to make up for lost time. Every level crossing we hit shook me in my bed. I knew shut-eye was not going to come easily with his lead foot at the wheel.

I remember hearing a rumbling sound that got louder and louder. Suddenly we lurched, then tumbled, my left arm shooting out to break my fall against the wall. Being flung around seemed to happen slowly but then when the quiet came, it seemed to have happened so suddenly. My tiny compartment had a window above the wall-mounted sink when I got in. Now it had a tiny skylight instead.

I scrambled up to take a look out, my nose pressed to the glass. That's odd, I thought. Why was I so close to that house? I was sure I'd been toward the back of the car. Together with the young army cadet sharing the small bunk compartment we tried to smash the window but couldn't. The lightweight emergency hammer wasn't enough for the job. We finally shattered the window but still could not get through.

When rescuers arrived at the crash scene in Morpeth about 10 minutes later, they let us out first. There I was, sitting on top of the train, suitcase in hand, ready to continue my life adventure. An old man and lady asked for help. They'd left things in their compartment, could I go back in and get them? Of course, in and out I went a couple of times before I was hit with an overwhelming sense of disorientation as I scrambled around in the upturned compartment. I got out and stayed out.

We were taken to a hotel in nearby Newcastle upon Tyne and put on a fresh train to continue our journey a few hours later. When we arrived in London, journalists were waiting to get our stories. I was a kid and the grown-ups told me not to talk to them, so I walked on with my bags, my head down. Odd, when I look back from where I am today. I found out afterward that the engineer had been trying to go into a curve limited to 50 mph at 90 mph.

Later that day I arrived at my new job with blood on my shirt from a few minor glass cuts. Two days later, I discovered I had a broken wrist.

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