TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) – A father and son are recovering from sore muscles after being passengers on the westbound Amtrak train, Empire Builder, which derailed in north-central Montana, killing three people and sending seven to the hospital. The pair said they decided to jump into action and save their fellow passengers while waiting on emergency crews.
“It all just happened so fast. I remember thinking, like, ‘Dad and I are gone. This’ll be it,’” said Zak Helmerich.
Big and Little Zak Helmerich took the train from Chicago to Seattle last weekend. The last-minute getaway quickly turned into a nightmare at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
“It teetered one way and then fell the other way,” said the son.
“The car went over and began to skid along the rails,” said the father, also named Zak Helmerich. “The entire time there was debris, an awful noise, there was all kind of confusion.”
“Dad was reaching out to me going, ‘Zak! Zake! Grab my hand! Are you okay?’” said the son.
The duo made their escape through a crumpled window, only to realize it would be an half-an-hour before emergency crews could arrive on scene near the town of Joplin, a town with the population of about 200.
“That’s when everything switched to fight or flight mode and it was all instinct,” said Zake, his nickname, pronounced Zachy.
The father and son, along with a few volunteers, became their own volunteers and ran back into the rubble.
“I just wanted to make sure everybody in the car that I was in was safe,” said Zake.
“I thought if he’s going to do it, heck, I’m going to go with him and help out. And we did. We were shoulder to shoulder almost the whole time,” said the father.
A woman approached little Zak, asking if he knew where her boyfriend was on the train, who’s name was also Zak. The son said he went back into the train and found the man’s lifeless body sitting two rows behind their seats.
“The window caved in and the rubble and shrapnel got to him,” he said.
In all, three people died in the crash, including an older couple. The father and son said they had a chance to meet them shortly before their death.
“Meet them for the first and last time,” said little Zak. “I got their card. They said, ‘If you’re ever in Georgia look us up.’ And then I saw who had passed and it was those two.”
The 30-year-old Zac said he also found an amputee passenger alive. He said the man’s two prosthetic legs and arm were detached. Only later realizing they were artificial limbs.
“So it looked like he was just a mangled mess and he had a big gash on his face,” said Zake.
“To see my son do that, it was really wonderful,” said Big Zak. “I wanted him to know that sometimes, when some event like this happens, and you fly into the fray, it’s a defining moment. It defines you as a man. It defines your future and the way people look at you.”
Both father and son tell KFOR they now have a new lease on life.
“The air smells better, the colors are brighter and when I laugh I want it to be louder. So, I’m definitely changed,” the son said.
“He’s definitely a hero,” said Big Zak.
So far, no word what caused the train derailment. National reports said the National Transportation and Safety Board are now investigating.
Zake would like others to know the Zak that died in the crash has a GoFundMe set up for funeral expenses.