Real-Life Survival: Train Wreck Topples Town

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I live in Montana where it is often bitterly cold in the winter. In February of 1989, it was 29 below zero, and a long train was crossing the state and heading up the Continental Divide just west of town. When the over-worked heater went out in the engine, the engineers stopped the train in order to swap engines so they could have heat. They set the brakes, disconnected the train, swapped the engines, and then went to re-connect the train, only to find it……missing. As it turns out, brake fluid congeals at about 20 below zero, becoming useless. Montana Rail Link didn’t know that at the time, and neither did the two hapless engineers. So, 44 fully loaded rail cars rolled backwards out of control nine miles from the top of the continental divide, colliding with a side-tracked train right in the center of town.

It was 5:00a.m. and 29 below zero when all of Helena got rocked out of their beds by a cataclysmic explosion, catastrophic conflagration, and toxic cloud of fumes rolling across town. Every window was shattered for a mile in all directions. Thousand-pound pieces of train rained down upon the adjacent college and nearby business district. The power was out. The phones were dead. The police were unable to communicate with the firemen; the firemen couldn’t communicate with the railroad; and nobody was communicating with the citizens. It was a mess. A horrifying mess.

Living two miles from the wreck, my front door was blown open and I was rudely awakened to a house that had no light, no heat, and no phone. Seeing the glow rising from downtown, I knew something was very, very bad. I needed light, but all I could find was a couple of decorative candles. I knew I had a flashlight, but it was packed in the camping gear, and I needed a flashlight in order to find it. I tried to find a radio but all my radios required electricity. Without electricity, the engine heater that kept the oil in my car from congealing and the battery from freezing was not functioning, so I went outside to start the car in order to keep it running in case I had to leave. I turned on the car radio and tried to tune into the Emergency Broadcast System but found nothing but static. All Helena radio stations were off the air. All my life I had grown up listening to the Emergency Broadcast System doing radio checks: “This is a test. This is only a test. If this had been an REAL emergency….” Now, it was a REAL emergency, and the Emergency Broadcast System, which was supposed to tell me what was happening and what to do, was no where to be found. As it turned out, the Emergency Broadcast System runs on electricity with a battery back-up, and the battery had gone dead within minutes at 29 below zero.

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