They were mostly poor or troubled urban youths, living and learning on hilly farmland where the Potomac River breaks through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Their journey to straighter lives ended in the tangled, fiery wreckage of a commuter train, where eight members of the Jobs Corps center near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were among 11 people unaccounted for and presumed dead."We all spend so much time talking about bad kids," Mary Silva, acting national director of the Job Corps, said Saturday. "These are kids who wanted to be good."
Tim Fowler, 18, one of the Job Corps passengers, said goodbye to his friends as he got off the train at a stop minutes from the crash, went to a fast-food restaurant and, when someone switched on the news, saw the horror unfold.
"I just sat there and started watching it," he said.
Many of the more than 100 youths who remained at the center assembled in a gym with their supervisors Saturday, seeking answers and consolation.
"They live together, they train together, they socialize together here," said center director Claude Thomas. "To suffer a loss like this has a tremendous emotional impact upon them."
Andre Hargrove, 20, had planned to ride the train home to Washington but at the last minute decided to spend the weekend studying at the center.
"I'm grateful. I'm sorrowful for the people that were on the train," he said in a halting voice. "It's hard to explain."
Were it not for the long weekend, most of the youths in the crash likely would have stayed at the Job Corps quarters where some 120 people ages 16 to 24 have been enrolled for about seven months of academic studies and training in carpentry, painting, brick-laying, nursing and more.
But officials said 17 were aboard the Maryland commuter train en route to Washington on Friday evening when it was crushed in a collision with Amtrak's Chicago-bound Capitol Limited.
Nearby houses rumbled from the explosion; fire and smoke rose above the suburban tree line, witnesses said.
Of the surviving Job Corps trainees, Tyrai Boyer, 16, remained in critical condition in a hospital in Bethesda, Md. Three others were treated and released, and five got out safely from the wreck at the scene.
The center is run by the National Parks Service overseeing historic Civil War grounds along the wide sweeping curve where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers converge, some 55 miles northwest of Washington.
"Almost all the kids who left (for the weekend) were on that train," said Silva.