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Philadelphia Train Crash: Survivors Recount Amtrak Derailment

They barely had time to think about what was going on before the worst of it was over.

They barely had time to think about what was going on — a sudden jolt, and what was supposed to be an ordinary commute turned into a nightmare.

That's how various passengers on the Amtrak train that derailed as it was leaving Philadelphia on its way to New York described Tuesday night's terrifying ordeal.

"It was very scary," said Max Helfman, a 19-year-old from Watchung, N.J., who was on his way home with his mother after doing work with the American Heart Association in Washington, D.C.

He said people were thrown to the ground and "chairs inside the train became unscrewed and suitcases were falling on people."

Max Helfman (far left), and his mother Joan Helfman (center in red), in Washington, D.C., before they boarded an Amtrak train Tuesday that later derailed in Philadelphia. Corinne Orlando (second from left) is the government relations director for the American Heart Association in New Jersey. Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ) is on right.

He only had a few scratches, and "maybe a concussion" — but his mother was hospitalized with possible broken ribs.

"My mother flew into me and I literally had to catch her," he told NBC News. "People were bleeding from their head. It was awful ... I'm still shocked this even happened."

That was the same sentiment from Janelle Richards, an associate producer for "NBC Nightly News" who was coming back from seeing friends and family in D.C. She's usually on the other side of the camera when disaster strikes.

"All of a sudden there was just a loud crash and I felt myself go up in my seat a little bit and sling forward and sling back," Richards said as she waited in Hahnemann University Hospital with lower back pain.

"I just remember thinking, 'Is this really happening right now? What is going on?'

"And as quickly as it happened, it stopped," she said. "The train was in shock, I was just like, 'Okay, you're okay, can you get up?'"

Her car wasn't one of the five that fell on its side or flipped over. Officials said all seven train cars and the engine derailed. Richards and other passengers asked if each other were all right, then some people managed to open a door and the people started piling out. But there were more fears.

"Could this train blow up? Could another train come? There were two large electric poles that were bent inward. I was thinking: Could they fall on the train?" Richards recalled.

"As we waited, eventually we saw, I saw, a light through the sky from the helicopter." Then she saw police and other first responders who cut through a fence and helped the passengers to safety.

Associated Press manager Paul Cheung remembered how everything started to shake and people's belongings started flying everywhere.

He says it all happened "in a flash second."

Cheung said another passenger urged them to escape from the back of the car, which he did. He said the front of the train was a twisted mess.

"The front of the train is really mangled," he said. "It's a complete wreck. The whole thing is like a pile of metal."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.