The day of May 12 was winding down and was soon going to become just another typical day.
Eli Kulp, a star chef at High Street on Market in Philadelphia texted his wife Marisa at 8:52 p.m that he was taking an earlier train back to their apartment in New York City.
Marisa didn’t respond right away. She was busy giving their three-year-old Dylan a bath, followed by reading him a few stories and tucking him into bed.
“At 10, I ready for bed and we always call each other to say goodnight if we’re not together,” says Marisa, 34.
But Eli didn’t pick up. While she was waiting to hear back, she glanced at Facebook on her phone to pass the time, and saw a breaking news alert that an Amtrak train had derailed on the same route Eli took.
Unbeknown to Marisa, Amtrak train No. 188, that Eli was indeed on, was traveling faster than 100 mph on a curve with a 50-mph limit – derailing and killing eight people and injuring more than 200.
Eli was thrown across the car, hit his neck on the opposite luggage rack and fractured his neck and injured his spine on impact.
“I called my friend to go online because I just couldn’t look. I was in a state of shock. My entire world froze. I just knew something bad happened,” she says while shaking her head in disbelief. ”
Her biggest firm was soon confirmed when the “find-my-friend” app located Eli at the scene of that accident.
She finally then got “the call from hell.”
“We have your husband here, he broke his neck. He is asking for you, you need to come here,” a doctor told her.
In the middle of the night, Dylan’s nanny rushed over to their Upper East Side apartment and Marisa and her best friend Devin drove to the hospital.
“Those early days are such a blur,” she says six months after the accident that changed their lives forever.
What They Lost
Eli immediately knew he was paralyzed. Buried underneath luggage, it was dark and he could smell the oil. When he tried to move, “there was just no response.”
“Being scared is an understatement,” says Eli, who was named Best New Chef of 2014 by Food & Wine magazine. “I started thinking of my family, my wife, my kid. The last thing you expect to happen when you get on a train is dying or never being able to walk again.”
The past six months have been filed with ups and downs while Marisa and Eli try to accept and adapt to their new life.
When Eli was at rehab for five months in Atlanta for his spinal cord injury, Marisa was left to take care of everything at home.
She had to buy a new apartment that was wheelchair accessible, oversee the renovations, find Eli 24-hour care, negotiate with insurance companies and take care of Dylan.
“Eli can’t get in out and of bed, I can’t lift him, so we have to have somebody help him in the morning to get ready,” she says. “These are things you would never expect. You can’t prepare yourself for this. Through sickness and in health, but you don’t think a spinal cord injury could potentially happen to your spouse.”
Eli and Marisa met in 2004 while she was entertaining clients over a dinner. He was her server and throughout the night “he was making eye contact with me.”
“Everyone says that he is the strongest person,” she says. “Eli is determined and that’s why I fell in love with him – his determination and his ambition.”
They married in 2008; and Dylan was born in 2012.
Since they met, Eli was eager to make it in the culinary world.
At the time of the accident, he had two restaurants, including Philadelphia’s Fork and High Street on Market, voted No. 2 on Bon Appetit’s list of best new restaurants in 2014.
One of Maria’s challenges since May was figuring out the best way to tell Dylan that “daddy” wouldn’t be the same when he came home from rehab.
When saying that he had “a bad boo-boo” didn’t satisfy Dylan’s curiosity, she explained to him what happened.
“You know, daddy was commuting home from work in Philadelphia on the train like he always does, right?” she said to him. “The train has an accident and went off the tracks and daddy hurt his neck.”
His response shocked her but at the same time put all her concerns of what his reaction would be to ease.
“A train? I love trains. Was it a diesel train or a locomotive?”
“After we had that conversation, he hasn’t mentioned the ‘how’ again,” she says.
When they would travel to Atlanta to visit Eli, Dylan would climb on his dad’s lap and ride around on the wheelchair with him.
“Eli and Dylan had the most physical father son relationship,” she says. “So now I think of all those things that Dylan won’t be able to do with his dad and how they won’t have the same relationship as they did before, that makes me sad but what gets me out of the that state of mine is [knowing] he can still have a really amazing father son relationship, and they will.”
Marisa thinks they might be “the unluckiest lucky” people to have this happen.
“To have the amount of support to get us through, there is no word to describe it,” she says. “It’s been incredible. I think Eli and I are both eager to get to a point where we can pay it forward.”
Both Marisa and Eli say that one day they want to start a foundation to help people growing through a similar situation.
But for now, they’re still processing what they have lost.
“I think we are both going through a huge emotional process in two different ways. I think Eli is grieving a lot of things that he lost, because he’s lost so much,” she says while tearing up. “I think for me I’m trying hard not to focus too much on the grief because I do, I think it would just completely overwhelm me.”
She adds: “Right now there is so much that I need to do as mother, as a wife, to prepare us for the life ahead, so I’m trying to stay fixated on the things that I can control and the things that I need to do.”