For Eli Kulp, a long rehab after the Amtrak crash

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Eli Kulp in a New York hospital room with wife Marisa last week. Kulp, 37, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury when he was thrown about in the derailment at Frankford Junction, is now at a rehab facility in Atlanta. ANGEL CHEVRESTT

Eli Kulp, one of America's most promising chefs, stepped into the quiet car of Amtrak Train 188 on May 12 and saw a new text message on his phone - a photograph.

Kulp, who reinvented Fork and created High Street on Market in Philadelphia, has a 3-year-old son, Dylan, who loves trains. The boy loves Thomas the Tank Engine in particular, and Eli, like so many fathers, can name most of the Thomas & Friends characters. His favorite is Gordon, the big engine, since Eli is 6-foot-4, weighs 220 pounds, and is known in his Old City restaurants as "the Viking."

While Dylan loves toy trains, he was scared of real ones. Eli, his wife, Marisa, and Dylan would often go to 96th Street in New York City, where commuter trains on the Metro North line roar by, but the noise and speed would scare Dylan. The family didn't go for months, but returned on May 10, Mother's Day, and Dylan watched proudly.

"I'm a big boy," he told his parents. "I'm not scared of trains anymore."

The photo texted to Kulp at 9:04 p.m. - of the three of them watching trains - was taken by a friend, and sent to Eli and Marisa as a group text.

Settling into his seat in the second car, the chef smiled gleefully and texted his reply:

"I'm a big boy," Eli wrote, recalling his son's words. "I'm not scared of trains anymore."

The Northeast Regional train was pretty empty. Eli, 37, went for the quiet car, and sat up front, where the seats face one another, because that would give him more leg room.

He was heading back to New York, where he had moved in May of 2013 for Marisa's job selling medical supplies. They had lived in Philadelphia for nine months, but with her job and an infant, it was too hard for her. So Eli commuted every day, usually taking the last train home from Philadelphia at night.

Eli sat by the window, relaxing. Before he knew it, he was airborne.

He recalls thinking, "I'm going to die right now."

At 9:21, the train - hurtling over 100 m.p.h. - derailed on a curve with a speed limit of 50. Eight people died, 200 were injured.

With no seat back in front of him to stop him, Eli gained altitude, crossing the aisle as his body turned. His neck slammed into the lip of the luggage rack.

"There was this sound," he recalled, "like a pow. Like being shocked." He made that sound again as he lay in his bed at a rehabilitation hospital in New York a few weeks ago, recalling the disaster. "It went through my whole body . . . like a power line blew up. All the millions of nerves that just got crushed."

Eli said it took about 10 seconds for the train to come to a halt.

He was trapped under God knows what: luggage, a metal rack, debris. He was near a window and could smell the night air, smoke, oil, and gravel. He could barely breathe. And he couldn't feel his legs. It was pitch black.

With his voice barely more than a whisper, how could he yell for help?

He heard somebody say they smelled smoke. He realized he had survived a crash, but now feared he'd die in a fire.

Martin J. Burke, a history professor at City University of New York, had been in the same car with Eli. The professor lost his glasses and he couldn't see. But he heard Eli.

He remembers Eli saying, "Help me. Help me. I'm going to die."

"Calm down," Burke, who lives in Center City, recalled saying. "You're not going to die. We'll be rescued."

Eli, who felt comforted by Burke's presence and steady voice, asked the man his name. Burke asked Eli for his.

Eli said he couldn't feel anything.

"It's OK," Burke reassured him. And in a calm voice, he told Eli, "I'm going to stay with you. I'm going to make sure they save you."

The rescue workers arrived like soldiers at war, Eli recalled. "It was chaos. They were yelling and swearing."

One man lifted Eli, picking him up around the waist and maneuvering him out an opening of the twisted rail car, where a stretcher was waiting.

Around 10 p.m., Marisa got into bed and called Eli to say good night.

He didn't answer.

That struck her as strange, but nothing more than that.

Marisa, 33, had met Eli when he was a culinary student in New York. He was waiting tables at a restaurant, and she was out with clients for dinner. She fell in love with his passion and ambition and good looks.

In bed, she called up Facebook, and the first thing that popped up was a news report about a train crash in Philadelphia.

"I couldn't go any further," she said. "I was frozen."

She called her best friend, Devin Helmes, and asked him to find out what was happening.

Helmes assured her that Eli was probably fine - maybe he wasn't on the train, or just got separated from his phone.

But Marisa knew better. She has a "find-a-friend" app on her phone. She used it and saw that Eli's cell was still at the bend in the track called Frankford Junction.

"In my head, I'm thinking, 'He's helping with other people,' " Marisa said. " 'He's big, he's strong.' That was my first thought."

Then her world changed.

About 11:30 p.m., a nurse in the emergency room at Aria Health-Torresdale Campus called to say Eli had been hurt in a train crash. Come as quickly as possible.

Marisa knew that meant life or death.

The nanny arrived at midnight to watch Dylan. Helmes drove Marisa to Philadelphia.

Just as they began the trip, the neurosurgeon called for consent to do surgery on Eli.

Marisa had never heard of the hospital or the doctor. "How do I know you're any good?" she asked.

"My name is Ken Liebman," he answered. "I'm the best. Look me up. But I need the consent now, because he needs the surgery as quickly as possible."

Marisa figured that Liebman was so cocky, he must be good.

"Go in there and fix my husband," she told him.

The doctor wasn't being cocky, but knew he needed to sound confident, to give Marisa reassurance.

He then held his phone up to Eli.

"Babe, the . . . train derailed and I'm paralyzed."

Other than a crushed spine, Eli Kulp had suffered barely a scratch.

He spent a week in the Torresdale hospital, then eight weeks at an inpatient rehab facility in New York. On Friday he was transferred by helicopter to the Shepherd Center, a rehab facility in Atlanta that focuses exclusively on people with spinal cord injuries.

Marisa visited five hospitals before choosing Shepherd.

"As soon as I pulled up, it offered a sense of hope," she said. "I got a gut feeling, literally, as I pulled into the driveway."

Eli will be there a month. That may be all the time their insurance will cover.

"I've seen people walking around the halls that were in my position a few months ago," Eli said Monday by phone. "There obviously is no guarantee. No secret potion. Everyone is different. But they claim that their therapists push you harder than anyone else. They're all about creating independence."

Eli has what is called an incomplete spinal injury, meaning he has some nerve sensation below the area of injury.

"It's left me no use of my hands, and below my chest is paralyzed," he said.

Because there is sensation, there is the remote chance of recovery.

After two months in rehab, "I think I'm stronger," Eli said. "We focus on using the muscles that we do have access to, making those stronger, making them more useful and dynamic than you would before."

His parents are with him, and Marisa is to head down Tuesday for a week with Dylan.

"I'm trying to stay strong and positive," Eli said. "It's difficult, especially when being away from my family, from the kitchen. That's my happy place."

Every day, Marisa Kulp tries her best to hold it together.

"My world changed forever on May 12," she said. "There are just so many unknowns, so many uncertainties."

Will her husband ever walk again, work again? What kind of father will he be? He cannot feed himself. The life they had built together, this beautiful future that was just blossoming, changed in a moment.

She's made so many hard decisions: consenting to Eli's surgery, moving him for rehab to New York and then to Georgia, picking a lawyer, figuring out how to find time for her son, her husband, and her job. Not letting the unknown and the expense overwhelm her.

She and Eli have filed suit against Amtrak, retaining Benedict P. Morelli, the New York lawyer who represented the comedian Tracy Morgan after his injury in a truck crash on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Amtrak has said it will not contest damages, but Congress has limited total damages to $200 million.

Eli, Marisa, and Dylan were living in a 700-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, and must move into a larger home that will accommodate a wheelchair and Eli's disability. He likely will need a home health aide and a nurse when he comes home, she says.

She's not sure who will pay for that.

Amtrak covered the first 30 days of Eli's medical expenses, and a spokesman says that additional costs the family incurs will be part of any settlement. But it is unlikely anyone will collect money from a settlement for two years.

Fund-raisers such as one at Fork on Thursday - and in New York City on Monday night - have netted over $150,000 to help defray mounting bills. Marisa and Eli say they are beyond grateful.

Eli fell in love with the kitchen when he started working as a dishwasher in his hometown of Mossyrock, Wash., which only recently got its first traffic light. He moved to New York to attend culinary school.

He had been working in a restaurant in New York when Ellen Yin hired him in 2012 as chef at Fork.

His career was soaring when the derailment left him with a crushed spine. Food & Wine magazine named him "best new chef 2014" while Bon Appétit dubbed High Street on Market the "No. 2 best new restaurant in America."

Eli is executive chef, and owns both Center City restaurants along with Yin. He was overseeing the opening of a High Street in Manhattan scheduled for this fall. It's still scheduled.

But right now, Eli can't think about anything other than getting better.

"I'm not focusing on anything other than what's in front of me right now," he said. "Somehow I will find a way to continue to do what I love. Some way, somehow, it will figure itself out. It just has to."


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639@michaelvitez