(SANTIAGO de COMPOSTELA, Spain) — In the mangled mess of the worst Spanish train tragedy in decades, somehow 18-year-old Stephen Ward walked away alive.
A picture in a local paper shows the Utah native in the minutes after the crash. He looks like “the walking dead,” as he puts it. Blood pours down from his head, and he is clearly dazed.
“I’ve never been to hell, but it’s probably a pretty accurate description,” he said Friday in the nearby town of La Caruna. “A lot of people were screaming. A lot of people were crying. A lot of wreckage and people [and] gore everywhere. It was truly gruesome in every way.”
When the train began to tip, he said he didn’t think anything of it, at first. But then he flew through the air — and blacked out. The next thing he remembers, he woke up in a pool of blood.
Ward, a Mormon in Spain for a 2-year mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints, is undoubtedly a mature teenager. But given what he’s been through, given the fact that he is lucky to be alive, he is remarkably calm and composed.
“I don’t want to be famous. I just want to serve,” he says.
On Wednesday, the day of the crash, Ward was on his very first day at work. He wasn’t even supposed to be on the train. He had accidentally bought the wrong ticket.
At the moment of impact, a few bags began to tip over. Other customers tried to catch them, and then things got very violent, very quickly.
“I just remember moving sideways. I didn’t really have any thoughts going through my head,” he said. “My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t think, Oh gosh, this isn’t the end. Everything just went black.”
When he woke up, he was led away gently, as if in a dream.
“They just kind of helped me out, sat me down on the road and looked for more people. And it was one or two minutes before I started to think, ‘You know what, I don’t think I’m asleep. I think this is real.’”
When he finally allowed himself to realize what had happened, he saw a smoky sky and blood-stained ground.
Ward has a fractured neck, although he says it should heal within the next few weeks. He delicately fingers four sets of staples in his scalp and on the side of his head. He has a large bruise on his leg. But otherwise, he is fine.
“That’s the biggest blessing,” he says when he first meets an ABC News reporter. “I have nothing that won’t heal with time.”
Ward survived cancer three years ago and acknowledges he has now “beat the odds” twice. When asked whether he believes he takes a message from his survival, he reaches for his faith.
“The message I choose to pull out of it is — I have something to do here. And I’m going to live every day working and doing my best. Trying to make the world around me a better place. I don’t know what better message you could pull out of it than that,” he said.
He also has a message for the man in the newspaper photo, helping him walk away from the crash.
“I don’t know who it was who helped me down, but if I did — I would say thank you and give you a great big hug,” he said.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Sheena McKenzie, CNN
James Griffiths, CNN
Camille Verdier, Steve Visser and Margot Haddad, CNN
Kevin Liptak, CNN