SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Seconds before the Spanish train he was aboard lifted off the tracks “like a roller coaster,” Mormon missionary Stephen Ward said he glanced up from the journal he was writing and noticed a backpack tumble from a rack. Moments later, he blacked out as the train smashed into a concrete wall at high speed.
He awoke to a scene that seemed like a nightmare.
“Everyone was covered in blood, there was smoke coming up off the train,” said Ward, 18, of Bountiful, Utah. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming. There were plenty of dead bodies. It was quite gruesome, to be honest.”
Ward said an information screen for passengers showed that the train was traveling 194 kph (121 mph) moments before the crash. He said that speed was nearly double the speed they had been cruising at since leaving Madrid earlier that afternoon.
The train was traveling fast when it derailed Wednesday and killed dozens, but officials haven’t yet confirmed how fast.
Rafael Catala, a senior transport official in Spain’s Development Ministry, said it appeared to be going much faster than the track’s speed limit of 80 kph (50 mph). An Associated Press analysis of security camera video of the crash indicated the train hit the bend at the crash site going twice the speed limit or more.
Ward’s face was caked in blood, his leg bruised and his neck injured. But he survived a horrific crash that killed 80 people — his latest brush with death.
Four years earlier, Ward was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as Burkitt’s lymphoma and nearly died while undergoing a bone marrow transplant.
“From a religious standpoint, I’d like to say that God has something in store for me and that there’s a reason I’m still here,” Stephen Ward said in a phone interview with The Associated Press from La Coruna, Spain. “I count myself very lucky and very blessed to have been able to survive so many things.”
Ward said he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck but has been discharged from the hospital. He expects to stay in Spain to complete his two-year mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he started six weeks ago.
He was one of at least five Americans hurt Wednesday when the train hurtled off the rails and smashed into a security wall. One American died, the U.S. State Department said. The American victim was identified by the Diocese of Arlington as Ana Maria Cordoba, an administrative employee from northern Virginia.
On Wednesday, Ward was supposed to board an earlier train from Madrid to El Ferrol, a coastal city in northwest Spain where he was sent to begin proselytizing. But he accidentally bought a ticket for the wrong day and instead went on a later train that ended up crashing as it rounded a bend about 60 miles north of Santiago de Compostela.
When he awoke from the crash, somebody was helping him walk out of his train car and crawl out of a ditch where the train car came to rest. He thought he was dreaming for 30 seconds until he felt his blood-drenched face and noticed the scene around him.
Emergency responders arrived within minutes and led him to a grassy area away from the wreckage where he laid for three hours before being taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Ward’s parents didn’t know he was on the train. They knew only that he was scheduled to leave Wednesday from Madrid, where had spent the first six weeks at a training center learning Spanish and how to be a missionary. When Raymond Ward, 45, saw news of the crash on his cellphone, he figured it had nothing to do with his son.
But an hour later, a Mormon church official in Spain called Raymond Ward and told him his son was on the train — and survived.
A picture of the 6-foot-6 Stephen Ward appeared in a Spanish newspaper, blood running down his face, his father said. Stephen Ward also gave an interview from his hospital bed to The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London recounting the harrowing experience.
“He looks terrible, but he’s alive so that’s good,” Raymond Ward said. “When we talked with him he was in good spirits.”
Stephen Ward is no stranger to hospitals, having spent countless hours fighting to survive cancer when he was younger. He’s been healthy since then, and is a gregarious, happy young man who plays piano and excelled in school, his dad said. He left for his mission after one year at Brigham Young University, where he is studying chemical engineering.
“Not many people come that close to death twice before age 20,” Raymond Ward said. “I’m just grateful that he’s alive and that he’s my son.”
Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs .