Star Chef Eli Kulp Opens Up About His Battle to Rebuild His Life After Being Left Paralyzed in Deadly Amtrak Derailment

"There is no instruction guide for how to survive this as a family, says Kulp, six months after the accident. Eventually we will turn this tragedy around for the better.

Photo: Lauren Fleishman

On a recent Thursday, Eli Kulp sat in his power wheelchair watching his wife Marisa and 3-year-old son Dylan play with toys on their living room floor.

As he sat there smiling and watching his wife and son, Eli’s one thought was how much he wanted to get down on his hands and knees, and join the fun – like he’d always done. But this past May 12, all of that forever changed for Eli and his family.

That day, Eli, who’d been named Best New Chef of 2014 by Food & Wine magazine, left work at his Philadelphia restaurant to head home to New York City. Roughly 10 minutes into the ride on Amtrak train No. 188, as the train quickly approached a turn, Eli sensed something was wrong. “We were going way too fast,” he recalls.

Seconds later, at 9:23 p.m., the train – traveling faster than 100 mph on a curve with a 50 mph speed limit – derailed, killing eight people and injuring more than 200.

“The next second I was flying through the air,” says Kulp, 37, who was thrown across the car and into a luggage rack. “The train came to a stop and the luggage fell on top of me. I was trapped and buried. It was dark. You could smell the oil.”

“I knew immediately that I was paralyzed,” says Eli, who had had fractured his neck and injured his spine on impact. “I tried to start moving to get my body out of the rubble and there was no response. The last thing you expect to happen when you get on a train is dying or never being able to walk again.”

Meanwhile at home in Manhattan, Marisa had just gotten into bed when she read on Facebook that an Amtrak train had derailed – on the same route that Eli always took.

“I was in a state of shock. My entire world froze,” she says. “I just knew something very bad had happened.”

Frantically pacing the apartment, she searched the “find-my-friend” app for her husband – and confirmed her worst fear: that his phone was indeed at the scene of the accident.

Moving Forward

Following emergency surgery, Eli spent the next five months in intensive rehab in Atlanta, while Marisa took care of Dylan, and prepared for her husband’s return home.

“There are so many motivating factors for me,” says Eli, who returned home on October 5. “First and foremost is obviously your family. You want to do everything for them. You try your best. Having to learn that I’m going to need people to take care of me is a very hard pill to swallow.”

Marisa is also trying to process the overwhelming challenges and emotions since the accident – even as she plans for their life going forward.

“Right now there is just so much that I need to do as a mother, as a wife, to prepare us for the life ahead,” she says. “So I’m trying to stay fixated on the things I can control and the things that I need to do.”

She monitors her husband’s care, oversees renovations on their two-bedroom apartment to accommodate his needs, and continues to negotiate with the insurance companies for medical coverage and support.

To help with the mounting costs of hospital and homecare, two of Marisa’s college friends created a GoFundMe page.

Amtrak agreed to cover the cost of initial acute hospital care and 30 days of rehab. But with medical expenses expected to reach $1 million in the first year alone, the Kulps have since filed a lawsuit against the company seeking additional compensation and support.

Marisa tears up when she talks about the life she built with Eli. They met in 2004 when Eli was just beginning his culinary career. “I was entertaining clients at a dinner and he was working at the restaurant part time,” she says. “We kept on making eye contact.”

The couple soon began dating and Marisa says she “fell in love” with his determination and passion to succeed in life.

Four years later they were married at her parents’ house in Buffalo; they later moved to New York City and, in 2012, they had Dylan.

Meanwhile, Eli’s career quickly took off and he found major success 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.

Adjusting to his limitations as a ‘hands-on dad’ is one of the toughest challenges Eli faces. Although he says he’ll “still be there for every moment, it’s [missing] the things like wanting to teach him baseball, being there when he learns how to play catch, swing the bat, and all those things you think of as a father.”

He’s also trying to process the fact that he won’t ever be able to cook again – an “indescribable” feeling. “It’s a piece of me that I don’t have anymore,” he says. “I sacrificed so much over the years to get to where I was. I had such a bright future.”

And despite his new challenges, he has a third restaurant in development – High Street on Hudson in New York City – which is now scheduled to open this month.

“It’s been a commitment of mine to continue to do as much as possible to help get the restaurant up and running through all of this,” says Eli, who just recently met with two of his chefs to finalize the opening menu.

Both Eli and Marisa are determined to stay strong – and ultimately find something positive in all of this.

“There are a lot of ways that we can eventually turn this tragedy around for the better, but right now it’s just so early,” says Eli. “We are focused on the here and now because that’s all we can do and take it one day at time. I don’t have a crystal ball of how things are going to go. There is no instruction guide for how to survive this as a family. But we will get through this. We are filled with hope.”

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