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Crash survivor’s message makes deep impression


John Phipps is momentarily overcome as he talks about how he was rescued from a derailed train.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
John Phipps is momentarily overcome as he talks about how he was rescued from a derailed train. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
By Greg Risling Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – He wasn’t known to the public, but his message left a lasting impression in many minds.

His bleeding body trapped under debris after a train wreck last week, John Phipps scrawled a message to his wife and children in his blood on an upended seat: “I (heart symbol) my kids. I (heart symbol) Leslie.”

Rescuers managed to pull Phipps from the wreck, and he came forward Thursday to talk about what he believed would be his last moments alive.

“I got up, went to work, survived and got to tell my wife and kids what I thought would be my last words,” Phipps said at a news conference, flanked by about a dozen firefighters who took part in the train rescue.

Phipps sustained injuries to his head and groin and had internal bleeding in the Jan. 26 crash that killed 11 people and injured 200.

Phipps said he was called to work early that day at an aerospace plant in Burbank, so he went in on a train he normally wouldn’t take. He sat upstairs in the double-deck train, went to sleep and remembers waking up and feeling mist falling on his face.

The 44-year-old looked around, saw broken bits of train and knew something was wrong.

When he touched the back of his head, his hands were covered with blood. He called out for help, but no one answered right away.

He tried to lift his head but couldn’t. His whole body was trapped under debris. As he waited, he sang “Why Me Lord?”

Reaching out, he felt a chair and saw his bloody handprint. That was when he decided to write his message.

“I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t think they would see it,” said Phipps.

Firefighters say it was easy to understand why Phipps thought he was going to die. Capt. Robert Rosario, the first to reach Phipps, said Phipps was bleeding from below the waist and complained of pain in his legs, back and ribs.

“I’ve seen some gruesome things on this job,” said Rosario, who called Phipps lucky considering two people died only feet from him. “But that moved me. My only thoughts at that point was I have to get this seat to his wife and kids.”

The seat has been kept as evidence and will be used at the trial of Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, who is charged with murder in the crash.

Phipps has three children, a daughter Shara, 22, and two sons, Jeremy, 19, and Josh, 15.

Leslie Phipps said she doesn’t remember how she first learned about the message, but a nurse gave the family a photo that appeared in the paper. “Hallmark is never going to top that,” she said. “It’s moving, it’s thoughtful and it’s chilling all at the same time.”

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