MADRID, Spain — The last thing Elder Stephen Ward remembers is flying sideways out of his seat.
The 18-year-old Mormon from Bountiful, Utah, was on his way to the Spanish town where he was planning to start two years of missionary work when the train he was riding in derailed as it went around a sharp curve.
One minute, he was writing in his journal. The next, he was covered in blood.
Ward was one of scores of people injured in Wednesday’s deadly crash.
“We had been going around some pretty sharp turns. We finally came to one more sharp turn, and the train, like, completely lifted up,” he said. “It was leaning sideways. It felt like a roller coaster.”
For a few seconds, Ward thought to himself, “Well, this is kind of weird.”
Others around him seemed puzzled but not alarmed. Then, he says, the other set of wheels left the rails.
Ward flew out of his seat and blacked out.
The sun had not yet set in Spain’s northwest when a ferocious boom rang out, the sound of the high-speed train smashing into a concrete wall after derailing on a curve.
Witnesses say it was about five minutes before police arrived, but almost as soon as the crash happened, people nearby rushed to the scene.
CNN affiliate Atlas interviewed two men who were among the first to see the wrecked train.
One man, who was working with horses nearby, said he heard a “big noise” and then saw plumes of black smoke. He approached and called police when he saw the train on its side, one car snapped in half.
As the first responders arrived, he joined them in a human chain as they began pulling passengers out of the wrecked train cars.
“People were dead, people were screaming in pain,” he said.
The second man said the impact was so loud that it made his car shake. He saw ashen passengers pulling their children out as drivers stopped their cars and brought blankets and water to the scene.
“There are no words for what I saw … I was traumatized,” he said.
When Ward came to, he thought he was dreaming.
“The first thing I remember was the little circle of light that was the door,” he says.
Someone helped him out of the train. A photo taken at the scene shows him leaning on a police officer as he walked beside the tracks, with blood oozing down his face and splattered on his crisp, white shirt.
He walked past dead bodies on the ground. He told London’s Daily Telegraph that it looked like a scene from hell.
Ward waited for hours while victims with more serious injuries were taken to the hospital. As he watched rescue crews carry the dead and wounded, he cried and sang church hymns to calm himself down.
The sun set, and this place, where the track curves near Santiago de Compostela, was faintly illuminated by the red and yellow flashing lights of the ambulances.
A long line of ambulances formed next to the train tracks, as rescuers moved the dead and injured out of the train cars.
Video from the scene showed rescuers using a wooden board to carry out a body, covered in a blanket, which was then moved to an adjoining field and placed on the ground. The board was then reused for the next body.
Rescuers continued to work in the dark, using flashlights.
Relatives of those on the train are awaiting a comprehensive list of the deceased. In the meantime, some are turning to Twitter, asking anyone for information about their missing loved ones.
“Please, desperation,” wrote one woman on Twitter, asking about three missing girls. The replies came in that the girls were confirmed dead.
Atlas captured video of one man, apparently in desperation, running toward the mangled train, ignoring police whistles and calls to stop. The officers caught up with the man and turned him away.
The sun rose Thursday, as Spain began to understand the scale of this tragedy.
One of the cars was lifted with a crane and moved — it looked like a candy wrapper, peeled at one end, its bottom nearly scraped off.
Ward was discharged from the hospital Thursday, wearing a neck brace because of a cracked vertebra he suffered in the crash. Lacerations on his face are stapled shut, and there’s a huge bruise on his leg.
He says he hopes to resume his missionary service after he recuperates.
“I’m just all the more grateful to be here. I’m all the more grateful to still be alive,” he says. “I really want to serve honorably. I know I’ve been kept alive for a reason.”
CNN’s Amanda Watts contributed to this report.
Catherine E. Shoichet and Mariano Castillo | CNN