For four long hours last week, Bob and Lisa Harris had no idea if their 26-year-old son, Aaron, was alive.

The couple from Eliot learned their only child was aboard the Amtrak train that derailed in DuPont, Washington, during its inaugural Seattle-to-Portland run on Dec. 18. Aaron Harris’ boss sent a message to Bob Harris via Facebook, then started phoning hospitals in the hopes of finding the Harrises’ son, eventually locating him at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Aaron Harris had suffered a traumatic brain injury along with rib and vertebrae fractures, and was sedated and on a ventilator his first two days in the intensive-care unit, with staples closing wounds on his left temple and the right side of his head.

“He was able to open his eyes this morning and recognize we were there,” Lisa Harris said Thursday, seated next to her husband in the Seattle law office of Robert Gellatly, who specializes in medical malpractice and personal-injury lawsuits.

Gellatly anticipates Amtrak and other parties responsible for a deadly derailment on Dec. 18 that killed three people and sent dozens to nearby hospitals will face numerous lawsuits. Bob and Lisa Harris are considering their own, but are waiting for more facts to emerge.

So far the investigation into the accident has determined the passenger train derailed on a curve while traveling 50 mph faster than the posted 30 mph speed limit, causing the locomotive and at least one of the train cars to topple off an overpass and crash onto southbound Interstate 5. The National Transportation Safety Board has said it is too early to determine why the train was going so fast.

“This is inexcusable. It was preventable and it never should have happened. Amtrak has shown an utter disregard for public safety,” Gellatly said, ticking off other deadly train wrecks in Philadelphia, New York and California as recent examples.


Bob Harris, who is semiretired and works at a golf course, and Lisa Harris, a high school teacher, said it’s too early to know if their son has suffered permanent cognitive impairment. They and their extended family are in it for the long haul, committed to seeing him through what’s bound to be a difficult recovery.

It remains unclear what Aaron Harris or his family would be able to recoup for his pain and suffering.

The Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 set a $200 million liability cap, limiting awards to rail passengers injured or killed in a single crash. That number was last adjusted to about $295 million in 2015 and will be adjusted again in 2020, Gellatly said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson promised him the company “will pay for the costs of the derailment including all the medical and incidental expenses incurred by those injured and their families, the clean up and repair of the roadway, and the restoration of passenger rail service.”

Gellatly called the news “a good-faith step forward,” but said the lion’s share of victims’ claims will be for noneconomic damages – things like pain and suffering, disability and loss of enjoyment of life. Those subjective claims are typically contested and exceed economic damages for past and future medical expenses and lost income.

Though Aaron Harris’ doctors hope to soon move him out of the ICU, his prognosis is unknown and he will need to be admitted to a rehabilitation facility after he’s discharged from Harborview, his parents said. A hospital spokeswoman said Aaron Harris was still in the hospital Tuesday night and that his family had requested that his condition not be released.

“His sarcasm is intact. I’d think that’s higher-level thinking,” said Lisa Harris, who remains optimistic about her son’s recovery.

As the couple were seeking information on their son last week, Bob Harris said he called Amtrak and provided a physical description of their son.

But he and his wife never heard back, and instead relied on news of their son from his boss, Sean McCormick, and Basil Harris, one of Bob’s nephews and a member of the family’s “Seattle clan.”

“We recognize the chaos of a mass-casualty scene. It takes time to get information, but we had to find him ourselves,” Lisa Harris said, criticizing Amtrak’s failure to provide any help in learning her son’s fate.

But she had nothing but gratitude for the city her son moved to five years ago, where strangers have offered their support.

“We want to thank Seattle. Everybody has been kind and helpful and I can’t imagine a better place for him to be. His medical care has been top-notch and it’s made that part of it easier,” Lisa Harris said. “I just wish it wasn’t so far away from home.”


Family members and Aaron Harris’ far-flung network of friends – including former teammates from his days as a two-time All American college lacrosse player – have rallied around him and his parents, raising $27,000 in one day through a GoFundMe page, Lisa Harris said.

Aaron Harris graduated with a business degree from Western New England University, and is the general manager at Float Seattle, a wellness spa where clients float in tanks of saltwater, his mother said.

About a month ago, Aaron Harris took his Honda Element to Portland to have it fitted with a pop-up camper in preparation for a summertime road trip through the Southern U.S., Lisa Harris said. McCormick, the company owner, knew Aaron Harris planned to travel by train to Portland, Oregon, to pick up his car.

A friend retrieved the vehicle Wednesday night and parked it outside the Wallingford house Aaron Harris shares with three roommates, his mother said.

Through news coverage, the Harrises have learned that passenger trains across the country were supposed to be fitted with Positive Train Control systems in 2015, but the deadline to install the safety features – which would have automatically slowed the train – was pushed to the end of 2018.

“It’s an inaugural run. How this happens just blows me away,” Bob Harris said. “We’re finding out a lot of things should’ve been done years ago but weren’t.”

He and his wife are speaking out in hopes that by sharing their son’s story, they can somehow prevent future wrecks from impacting even more families.

“The pain you go through emotionally, I don’t have the vocabulary to put it into words,” Bob Harris said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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