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Ralph Velasquez in his own words: His Family's Escape from the Derailed Train's Poisonous Gas Part 2

Velasquez, fiftyish and with the look of a man who has seen la muerte, with the clock ticking loudly inside him, told me his story alongside his attorneys Amy Kastely and Isabel De la Riva this past Wednesday night:

He had returned home early after taking his children on a fishing trip that was rained out. Everyone went to sleep. Then, a noise woke him up. He looked at the clock. 5:07 a.m. Leticia was choking, and that's when Ralph saw it.

A cloud, a wave, a rolling fog of something that was within 50' of engulfing his house.

There was no way to avoid it. He started choking too, coughing up blood, tissue, and what he later learned were pieces of his lungs.

He and Leticia gathered up the kids, rushing to their car, instinctively realizing that the only chance they had were the back roads, to move faster than the fog sweeping down on them. They took the backroad, only to be snared by a neighbor's barbed wire fence. Desperately, Leticia tried to open the fence, and then tried again, and finally Velasquez just rammed their way through, ripping off the sunroof and windshield wipers, exposing them to the creeping gas now entering the car all around them.

Then they hit what seemed to be a "sea of mud." It had been raining all that week, and Velasquez said it changed the landscape so that he didn't know where they were.

"Daddy, go right, go to the left," the Velasquez children frantically gave advice as the car spun, whirring, gaining momentum, as they took off toward a field of weeds. Then they came to a place where they just couldn't see ahead of them. A ravine. Velasquez backed up the car as fast as he could, stepped on the gas, and somehow, the car lurched, jumping across the emptiness. That's when they saw an open area, where Velasquez knew a rancher who was keeping undocumented workers locked in a barn.

In a mad rush, he freed the men in the barn so that they would have a chance.

From there, he knew where he was.

At the first gas station he called 911. "Are we gonna die?," his daughter cried. Velasquez was bleeding from his nose, and after fifteen minutes of explaining and then waiting and waiting, got hung up on.

He hurried to Wilford Hall, where he and his family were stripped, decontaminated, and where Ralph spent 2 days in ICU.

It is a milagro that he lived. The doctors told him that he should have died. Like the other four people who didn't make it that night. His neighbors and the train conductor.

The railroad industry sees 2 1/2 derailments a day, says Kastely. In 2004, San Antonio had three serious train derailments alone - forcing Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to demand accountability from Union Pacific.

But that's the trouble. To whom is Union Pacific accountable? Not to us.

Kastely believes that the railroad industry sees "accidents" as a consequence of industry. Which I understand as lax government regulation. Think mining. Or the New Orleans levees.

She cites the railroad's moratorium on upkeep, the employee RIFs, the limitations on new hires, the skeletal crew, the overworked employees pulling double shifts - in short, the cost-cutting measures endemic in many of the industries essential to our national stability. And security.

Most of the train derailments have occurred in poorer communities, where the railroads cross frequently. Poor people are vulnerable to settlements, they don't want to go to trial. And the industry, she says, knows this well.

Velasquez says that about 500 lawyers have called on him, including Johnny Cochran. But he was looking for the right lawyer, the one who would understand the national picture, someone who cared about the latino community, someone with a track record of beating the odds. And he wanted someone to go the whole way with him.

He may not live to see what he has done. But with Kastely besides him, we've already won.

And Willie, his brother, would be so proud.


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