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'It's been a not good 24 hours' | Texan man continues to look for shelter after 17-hour ride on 'freedom train'

Tom Sanchez said the conductor of the 'freedom train' would frequently turn off all the train's lights when gunfire and explosions became louder.

KYIV, Ukraine — A North Texas man is continuing to look for and find safety after successfully getting out of Kyiv, Ukraine thanks to what he is calling the "freedom train."

And it might never have happened if not for some rerouting of this trip and quick thinking from the train conductor.

That Texas passenger is Tom Sanchez, a lawyer who frequently goes to Ukraine for certain language courses as a recently-discovered hobby.

While he is going to be on the move for a while, he said he isn't the only American in Ukraine right now who has a story to tell.

"It's been a not good 24 hours," Sanchez said.

What brought Sanchez to Ukraine

Sanchez has been living in Irving off and on for about the last 20 years. 

He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1970s and was a part of the Vietnam evacuation that happened in 1975. He said he was a part of the 3rd marine division.

Today, Sanchez travels to Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, a couple of times a year for language school.

"I go like for two weeks," Sanchez said. "Learn a little more. Forget some. Go back six months later for another two weeks. It became a hobby."

His most recent trip to Kyiv for these classes was different. Flying there a couple of weeks ago, Sanchez found himself in Kyiv when Russia began its attack on Ukraine.

"So we knew there was something going on," Sanchez said.

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The "freedom train"

Sanchez had been staying in Kyiv throughout most of this week. On Friday, he said nearby fighting gave him the sign he needed to get out.

"The Russians come in at night, I'm assuming," Sanchez said. "I don't know how they're getting in but they infiltrate at night and cause hell during the day. That's what they did in Kyiv."

So Sanchez got on a train from Kyiv to Lviv that was supposed to take 8 hours. That didn't happen.

"You could hear a lot of automatic weapons going off," Sanchez said, in terms of what he could hear while on the train. "There were a lot of explosions, and they were coming closer and closer."

Sanchez and all the passengers were forced to stand the entire time they were on the train. He called this the "freedom train." It had to be rerouted multiple times to avoid dangerous areas.

"It was just really hot, and you keep adjusting yourself," Sanchez said.

Sanchez said the train conductor would frequently turn off all the train's lights when gunfire and explosions became louder.

After 17 hours on the train, Sanchez finally made it to Lviv safely.

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Finding shelter

Once in Lviv, Sanchez had to figure out where to stay because he couldn't find any available hotel rooms nearby.

He found shelter from a restaurant owner allowing him to stay above the business in a loft-type room.

"The restaurant owners here are illegally letting people sleep in their restaurant when it closes," Sanchez said. "I guess I'm lucky to have this."

Sanchez, though, only has the room for one the one night he is there on Saturday. By Sunday morning, he'll be on the move again, waking up to what he describes as his new alarm clock.

"You can just feel the ground shake," Sanchez said. "You don't really hear them as much as you feel the ground shake underneath you."

What Sanchez is hoping for

As someone who has been going to Kyiv multiple times a year since 2018, Sanchez said the type of language and messaging sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine is not true and damaging to the country.

"This is a civilized European country," Sanchez said. "Every lie he tells gets repeated as though it were fact. For example, Ukrainians and Russians are nothing alike. They're not alike culturally. They're not alike ethnically."

Sanchez said while he will be continuing to look for safety, he will also be hoping for more impactful action from his American leaders.

"No more speeches," Sanchez said. "No more you know what speeches. Send weapons."

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