Halloween evening the trick or treaters came to the doors of friends and relatives and asked how they could still be smiling after the big train wreck. So the word spread through Winslow by phone and friends about the crash west of Flagstaff that took one life and miraculously allowed Joe Hittle to both survive and return to active life.
Joe Hittle was standing in front of one of the largest Sunday night crowds ever to pack the First Baptist Church of Winslow when he said, "I don't know why God saved my life and let a good man, Mark Hurtz, die. What I do know is that He still works miracles and that I am here for a reason. There is also comfort for me in the belief that Mark accepted Christ that night just before that train crash."
In the seconds just before that train crash Mark Hurtz and Hittle had seen that train on the tracks just ahead of them where none should have been. They both knew that there was not time to stop and no way they were likely to survive the impact of the collision.
Hurtz asked, "Are we going to die?" and Joe had replied, "Yes, we are. Have you accepted Christ as Lord in your heart?"
"I believe in God," was his reply and Joe said, "You can ask Christ to come into your heart even now." Hurtz bowed his head in prayer just a few seconds before the impact and explosion that no man should have been able to survive.
Joe Hittle said to that congregation, "I don't think God let me live for me. I was ready to be with the Lord. Maybe he saved me for you, so you could come together to pray for me and learn that God still answers prayer according to His will."
The railroad accident occurred Oct. 31, 2000, at Turpentine Curve, 10 miles west of Flagstaff. Joe Hittle was the engineer and Mark Hurtz the conductor. They had just passed through a "green" signal that should have meant that the track was clear. That had been logged and Hittle remembers Hurtz checking the log again as they saw the other train on the track ahead. While Hurtz was new to this run, having recently transferred to the division, Hittle had been over the track between Winslow and Needles, California almost daily for better than a decade. He knew that run as well as he knew his own living room.
"I have felt the Lord's discipline in the 12 years that I have known Him," Hittle said, "This wasn't discipline. It wasn't for me. It may have been for you."
He said that since the accident he has changed. "For one thing, I cry a lot easier." He told again of those few seconds before the impact and explosion. He described how the last car on the train his rammed was carrying solvent, which had caused the explosion. His locomotive was crushed.
"I don't remember being thrown around," he said. "It felt like someone or something was holding me. Then I could hear the radio saying that the train was on fire." (This radio was coming from the engine of the other train.)
"I saw a window, but could not open it. Then I felt for Mark and tried to help him but somehow I knew he was beyond help. "
Hittle, who is a handsome man even after the burns that he suffered in the accident, grinned and told the congregation he said, "'Lord, it's time to go home,' and God answered, 'Just push on the window and get out of here.' 'No, see I'm ready to go home.' But God said, 'If you are my servant, go back and push that window and get out.' The Bible says, 'My sheep know my voice" and I knew it was God speaking. So I pushed the window and it opened.'"
His shoulder was broken and he was looking upon a scene from a war zone. Hittle did not know it at the time, but thermal gas had burned his lungs and he had lain in burning fuel in that locomotive. He somersaulted out the window and landed in a snowbank. He would have lain there and died. He was calm and had accepted that fact, but then he heard God again saying, "Get up and walk." He rolled away from the locomotive, but saw the fire following the path his body was making in the snow. He still wondered what had happened, thinking, "We had a clear signal."
Somehow walking now, he saw three people coming toward him. He said to them, "You have to get out of here. There has been an accident and there is toxic gas here. I am already dead." (He was, of course, in shock and had no real idea of what he was saying.)
One of them was a woman who was trained for medical emergencies and her husband worked with the Coconino County Sheriff's Office. Somehow, they got him away from the wreck and while they made an effort to go back for Mark, the fire made that impossible. They got help from a Department of Public Safety Officer and Hittle was asked if he needed morphine by an ambulance attendant who had arrived on the scene. He said, "What do you think?" They gave it to him.
Nine days later, he woke up in a burn unit at a hospital in Phoenix. The morphine had wrought a terrible change. He could not sense the presence of the Holy Spirit, something he had felt since his own acceptance of Christ. Fear came over him and he told his pastor, "I don't know why God got me out of that wreck and brought me to this hospital to die."
He had no way of knowing, but a doctor had told his wife Elyse on the third day he was there that he was not going to live. "I have never seen lungs this badly burned before," he said. That is not something you want to hear in a ward that specializes in severe burn cases.
Meanwhile, an investigation had determined that there was nothing wrong with the signal system. That would make Joe and Mark Hurtz responsible for the accident. He knew better and was relieved when the calls and other contacts began to come in from other railroad workers who had experienced "green" or clear signals when the track was occupied. He says that there have been very few such incidents of signal failure known, but that all have involved fatal crashes.
Joe said that the Lord has blessed and encouraged him and his family through the tragedy. "God allows things to happen for a reason. We don't always understand why, but He will prove to be strong if we will let Him. He will use these trials to strengthen us.
Elyse Hittle said that God had spoken to her, not in an audible voice, but through reading of the Bible and the songs that He inspired her to sing. She described how she would sing to Joe when he was still unconscious and a nurse had told her, "Keep doing what you are doing. I can see a change in him. His vital signs improve when you do that."
Elyse said that she believes God has used this tragedy to bring His people together as brothers and sisters in Christ. There was a tremendous community-wide effort to encourage prayer for the recovery of Joe Hittle. That effort crossed denominational lines, just as the testimony regarding the miraculous rescue and recovery has.
Shortly after he awakened, but before he could speak, Joe would communicate with Elyse in writing, still a painful process for him. One day, he wrote,"The Lord is calling me," and she asked tearfully, "You mean to heaven?" Then she was finally able to decipher the last words, "to unite." He meant to unite the churches to truly love and help one another. He cares about and loves all people and can make a difference in anyone's life.
The service ended with Joe and Elyse singing a special song and Pastor David Daffern praying for a special blessing on the Hittles and their church, Calvary Chapel, for sharing their testimony with the entire community.