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Smoke, flames killed most train crash victims // NARROW ESCAPE

The commuter train had been rolling along to Washington, passengers settled into sleep or conversation.

Nineteen-year-old Damian Benitez was excited, chatting happily, taking his first home furlough since he joined the strictly disciplined federal Job Corps in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., six weeks ago. Then an odd tingle made him stand and glance through the open door of the control booth. He saw the two engineers recoil in shock.

"It looked like they'd seen a ghost," Benitez said, recalling from his Philadelphia home Monday the crash of a Maryland Rail Commuter train and Amtrak's Chicago-bound Capitol Limited. As a crewman raced into the first commuter car shouting, "All aboard! All aboooooard," Benitez knew he had better pray for a way out.

"He must have panicked or something," Benitez said. "The other (crewman) yelled "Take cover!' Then he dove on the floor."

Benitez was one of six survivors of 14 Job Corps trainees in the fiery train crash Friday night north of Washington. Both crewmen and a colleague died along with eight Job Corps trainees on the MARC train.

"There was an incredible explosion" when the trains hit, Benitez said. "And then we were sliding backward, slamming from side to side. I was on my knees grabbing a seat, and squeezing and squeezing for my life."

Around him, passengers slipped to the floor and crouched or remained in their seats, frozen in shock. Benitez jumped up and pounded down the train's rocking aisle toward the exit.

Smoke quickly filled the car. Doors wedged shut. Windows could not be broken.

Benitez saw a flash of white through jagged steel and realized it was snow outside. He made his way, stopping to help Job Corps friends Rodney Crawford and Richard Brown.

Together, they ran through fiery eruptions and crawled under a snarl of derailed cars into "the open arms of people running out of an apartment building."

"Richard was trying to go back, but I was pulling him. The fire was too high _ it was suicide," he said.

"We just ran for those open arms."