The door shut and trapped my arm. My wrist was clamped, with my entire hand inside the train. To my horror, it started moving
On the morning of 8 May, 2003, I stepped off a train in the German town of Germersheim, where I was studying to be a translator. I got on my bike and was about to cycle away when I noticed another woman trying to board the train. Still on my bike, I stuck my hand in the closing door to keep it open for her. Instead, the door shut and trapped my arm.
We both cried for help, but the people on the train couldnt hear us, because the windows were sealed. The drivers cabin didnt have rear-view mirrors. My wrist was clamped by the door, with my entire hand inside the train. To my horror, it started moving.
It was a sunny day. I was wearing a T-shirt and a jumper knotted around my waist, long trousers and sunglasses, and a backpack. At first, the train pulled me along on my bike. I kicked it away and was dragged along the platform. I managed to grip my trapped left arm with my right hand and pull up my legs. The train accelerated. It was the most frightening moment of my life. I forced myself to focus on trying to survive.
I was 35 years old. I had previously trained as a contemporary dancer, and still took tango classes. I also enjoyed indoor climbing. As a result, I was fit and nimble. I knew it was eight minutes till the next stop, in the town of Speyer. I needed to cling to the train for that long.
Instinctively, I reached for holds. To my right was a gap between two carriages. I stretched out my right foot and managed to rest it on some hydraulic tubes there, then placed my left foot next to it. With my right hand, I let go of my trapped arm and tried to pull myself into the gap. All I could hear was the roar of the train and the masts wooshing past me. Any moment, the airstream might pull me out of the gap to be smashed against the next mast.
I was familiar with the route and knew there was a curve ahead, but I could not remember if it was to the right or left. A left curve would mean I would be flung off the train by the centrifugal force. A right curve could crush me in the narrowing gap between the carriages.
The train hurtled into a right curve at 75mph. The gap narrowed, but I managed to hang on. My whole body was trembling with fear. I had to tense my legs to avoid slipping off. My biggest fear was that my strength wouldnt last and I would fall to my death.
Back in Germersheim, the woman I had been trying to assist was desperately looking for help. Eventually, she found a station attendant, who called the control board. They alerted the driver, who stopped the train. The process took seven minutes.
I felt the train slow down and stop, then heard the shh sound signalling the release of the doors. Using my last bit of strength, I reached for the button by the door and pressed it. The door opened and I tumbled on to the gravel tracks. I was still wearing my backpack, my sunglasses, even my jumper around my waist.
The train driver thought someone on the inside of the train had trapped their hand. When he saw me, he almost fainted. A passing driver took me to a hospital in Germersheim, where I spent two days recovering. I had cuts and bruises all over, but otherwise was physically fine.
The mental fallout was terrible, though. I couldnt sleep. As soon as I closed my eyes, I was clinging to that train again, fearing for my life. I couldnt get into cars or lifts, let alone trains. I underwent a special trauma therapy called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). It involved recalling my ordeal minute by minute, while a therapist directed my eye movements. The procedure mimics the way we process events during the rapid eye-movement phase of sleep. It took 52 hours of EMDR over half a year, but slowly my sleep improved. These days, I use trains all the time. Remembering the experience is like looking at a photo album. I can think and talk about it without getting distressed.
An official investigation into the accident found that the door should have stopped when I stuck my hand in, but the mechanism had failed. I sued the train company, Deutsche Bahn, for compensation to cover the cost of my therapy, and won. My case made national headlines and resulted in lasting change. I am the reason train drivers in Germany now have to look out of the window before they leave the station.
As told to Sophie Hardach
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