SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A young Mormon missionary and cancer survivor from Utah who lived through the Spain train crash that left 80 dead said Thursday he remembers the train lifting off the tracks "like a roller coaster" before he blacked out and awoke to a "gruesome" scene.
Stephen Ward, 18, 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.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press from La Coruna, Spain, Ward said he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck but has been discharged from the hospital
"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," the Bountiful man said.
Ward 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.
Four years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as Burkitt's lymphoma and nearly died while undergoing a bone marrow transplant. "I count myself very lucky and very blessed to have been able to survive so many things," Ward said.
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 proselyting. 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.
Ward said he had been writing in his journal seconds earlier. He looked up at a screen across from him that showed the speed of the train and noticed it was 194 kilometers per hour, much faster than the 100 kilometers per hour that had been flashing for the whole trip.
"The train lifted up off the track. It was like a roller coaster," he said.
Two seconds later, Ward remembers seeing a backpack fall from the rack above him and feeling the train fly off the tracks — his last memory before he blacked out on impact.
When he awoke, 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.
"Everyone was covered in blood. There was smoke coming up off the train," he said. "There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming. There were plenty of dead bodies. It was quite gruesome, to be honest."
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's he my son."
Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs.