WASHINGTON – Joan Barr says she will never forget the beating fists of the captives she tried unsuccessfully to save from the MARC train that collided head-on with an Amtrak train in February.
“The hands on the glass – that will always be on my mind,” the 31-year-old Mechanicsville, Md., resident said. “The car was filling up with smoke and I could see these pale hands beating on the glass and hear them screaming for their lives and I was trying to get through the windows and the doors.”
Barr, a mail carrier in Silver Spring, said she gave up only when approaching fires from surrounding cars forced her to retreat.
For risking her life to try to save others, Barr was given the National Association of Letter Carrier’s National Hero of the Year award Wednesday. She is the first woman to receive the $500 award from the 318,000-member union, NALC spokesman Drew Von Bergen said.
“My neighbor Joan Barr … came upon the MARC train [and] she knew what to do,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., praising her at the ceremony. “But intellectually knowing what to do and actually having the courage and conviction to do it are two different things.”
Barr was driving home from work Feb. 16 on 16th Street in Silver Spring when she heard the trains collide below her. She pulled into a nearby parking lot, scrambled down a steep embankment and under an Amtrack car, fire on either side of her, to the smoke-filled MARC car where three train crew members and eight Job Corps trainees were trapped.
“They were alive when I got there,” Barr said. “They died while I was trying to get them out.”
A former emergency medical technician, Barr stayed on the scene more than eight hours – until 2 a.m. – helping set up a triage for injured victims and retrieving mail from the Amtrak train. She reported to her postal job at 7 a.m., covered with soot and reeking of diesel fumes because she did not have time to make the two-hour drive home.
“We were amazed that she had that kind of stamina and could continue doing her job,” said Bill Kinzer, a mail carrier who works with Barr. “She didn’t say a lot about it, and when I began to realize what she had handled emotionally, I was amazed that she was able to handle her job with any semblance of normalcy. I would have probably had to take a week off.”
Barr had been with the postal service only 84 days when the crash occurred.
She said she attends group therapy through the Montgomery County Fire Department for the post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt she suffers. The department “really helped take care of me,” she said.
“It’s easy for someone to say, `Man, I know what you went through. But, it’s like, `No, you don’t. You weren’t there with me,’ ” Barr said. “They were with me. They know what it’s like.”
She does not consider herself a hero.
“It feels good. It’s embarrassing. It isn’t necessary,” Barr said of the award. “I just did what I had to do and didn’t think about it.
“I think anyone would have done that. You always think that could have been you in the train, or your spouse, or your child.” -30-