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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

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It was 6:51 A.M., July 6, 1984, when the Amtrak Montrealer went flying over a washout outside Williston, Vermont. Here’s exactly what happened, leading to the most massive rescue effort in the state’s history.
All Aboard The Squall Line rolled in from the southwest, building up over Lake Champlain as another muggy summer evening fell on the hills of northern Vermont. During the night the National Weather Service in Burlington issued flood warnings for Chittenden, Lamoille, Franklin, and Orleans counties. Torrents of rain swept along deserted, glistening roads, swirled around streetlights and pounded metal car tops.

A hundred yards east of the massive IBM computer plant on the edge of Essex Junction is a small, unnamed stream that meanders down through a culvert under the Central Vermont railroad tracks. In the mountains to the east, where the stream originates, the water level in a dozen beaver ponds slowly rose under six inches of rain. That night—Friday, July 6, 1984—the beaver dams burst like a string of firecrackers. Gathering force with each newly conquered dam, a wall of water slammed into the side of the 20-foot-high railroad embankment, blowing out a 50-foot-wide gap in a matter of minutes. The steel tracks remained perfectly straight and level, suspended in mid-air.

Earlier that day, as the storm was starting to build, the Amtrak Montrealer began its regular passenger run north from Washington, D.C., to Canada. There were 13 cars in the train, four more than usual. Directly behind the two diesel engines was the baggage car, followed by two sleepers, a dining car, five regular coaches, and four customized private cars chartered especially for this trip by Unlimited Adventures, a tour company specializing in rolling cross-country disco parties. By the time the Montrealer reached Essex Junction there were 278 people on board, including 16 crew members in that number.

Among the passengers was a group of five from Washington on their way to Montreal to begin a bike trip around Lake Champlain. Two of them, Bob Bubel and Peter Hofmann, were best friends and ran a cycling club. The other three, Judy Loriaux, Lonnie Kohl, and Arnie Sanow, were planning to get acquainted on the trip. Everyone except Kohl, who bought a coach ticket to save money, had reserved space in the second sleeper.

Gerald Schreiber, a middle-aged electronics systems engineer on a solo vacation, got on in Baltimore and took a compartment in the same car. At Penn Station in New York, Charlie Crawford, a sleeping car attendant, guided Margaret Wolf and Philip and Roma Bourne to their sleeping quarters near Schreiber.

Shortly before dawn the train stopped at White River Junction to change crews. For the next 147 miles, until St. Albans, it would be under the control of Central Vermont Railroad engineer George Gaye, fireman Jeff Howard, and four other veteran CV crewmen. Inside the cab was a radiotelephone, but the frequencies were set to handle only Amtrak signals from farther south. The crew did carry a small hand-held radio on which the CV dispatcher in St. Albans could reach them. But the dispatcher had no reason to call: not being hooked up to the National Weather Service, he had heard no flood warnings.

Gaye manned the controls for a few minutes before turning them over to Howard. Gradually the sky lightened, revealing wet wisps of mist floating through the forest under a dank, overcast sky. A light drizzle forced Howard to turn on the window wipers every few minutes. Ahead, the silver tracks curved through green hills. Howard’s practiced hand caressed the throttle, the speedometer registering exactly 59 miles per hour, the maximum allowed on that section of track. His eyes searched the track ahead.

The train passed Williston and rounded a bend a quarter mile south of the IBM plant. Suddenly, barely a hundred yards ahead, Howard saw the washout. He hardly had time to grab the brake before the lead engine was flying over the gap.

The train’s momentum carried both engines and the baggage car over the chasm. The first 120-ton diesel fell about four feet before the front wheel assembly hit the opposite bank. The wheels tore off and the engine ricocheted into the air, ripping up the rail bed as it skidded on its side for another hundred yards. The second diesel ran into the rear of the first, following it off to the right side of the tracks. Somehow the baggage car remained upright, but skewed into the forest behind the engines.

One by one, like giant metal logs hurtling out of a sluice, five 70-ton passenger cars careened into the hole. The front wheels of the first sleeper ripped off as the car tumbled down the left side of the embankment. The second sleeper gouged the opposite bank and spun to the right until it halted on its side almost perpendicular to the tracks. The dining car crashed into one end of the second sleeper and swung around to the right until the two cars formed an X one atop the other. The first coach bounced off the dining car and pitched into the streambed on the opposite side, while the following coach finally came to rest angled down the south side of the gap. All the remaining cars jerked off the track but remained upright.

For those inside the sleepers, it was an agonizing, slow-motion tumble lit by hot blue flashes as steel ground against steel, plastic and wood crumpled like paper, and fists of twisted metal jabbed into the compartments. The quartet of rooms holding Wolf, Schreiber, and the Bournes in the second sleeper disintegrated as the dining car fell on top of it. Schreiber had been lying awake in his bunk when he felt a tremendous jerk, followed by bouncing. Startled, he sat up to see an object crash through the big picture window, and his compartment folded up like an accordion. Margaret Wolf woke up being hurled around her compartment like a clothespin in a laundry basket. Judy Loriaux was knocked unconscious. Roma Bourne futilely tried to grab something to hold onto, wondering oddly why there were no safety belts, as a searing pain shot through her body. Then everything was silent.

A half mile away, in their home across the Winooski River, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Marcotte were awakened by a distant rumble. “It sounded like an earthquake without the rattle,” he said later. The rumble continued for half a minute; from their window the Marcottes saw black smoke drifting up through the forest. He grabbed the phone to call the police. It was 6:51 A.M.

When Marcotte’s call came in, the Essex Junction Police Department sent two officers to investigate. The dispatcher routinely alerted Essex Junction Rescue and the Essex Junction and Williston Volunteer Fire Departments to a possible train derailment. Nearby, IBM emergency control workers heard the police over their scanners and jumped into their trucks to join the search.

Six minutes after Marcotte’s call the IBM trucks stopped at a bridge over the railroad. A half mile away, between thick walls of forest, they could see the train. Mark Neilson, an IBM technician, started running down the tracks while his colleague Neil Driver radioed in confirmation of the wreck.

As Neilson approached, he was stunned by the eerie silence that hung over a scene of awesome chaos. Massive locomotives lay smoking on their sides. Mangled silver railroad cars were scattered all over the clearing. Rails were twisted into pretzel shapes. In the gap, the coaches and sleepers were stacked on top of each other, thrusting into the sky at steep angles. The body of Charlie Crawford dangled from the end of one.

Hundreds of dazed passengers were still emerging from the wreckage. Some were extracting others from the cars, a few tended the injured, but most milled about or sat quietly on the embankment as if waiting for the next train. There were no screams, moans, or shouts for help, only the tranquil rush of the stream and the chirrup of robins greeting another day.

Bob Bubel and Arnie Sanow, neither hurt seriously, managed to squeeze out of the tangled hulk. Lying in the stream, barely conscious, was Vernon Church, the 60-year-old conductor who was only a year away from retirement. Bubel and several other passengers pulled him out of the stream and tried to comfort him, but his wounds were too serious. He died several hours later.

In the second sleeper, Judy Loriaux regained consciousness to find herself trapped in complete darkness but uninjured. Her back was on the window and the bottom of a door was at her feet. There wasn’t quite enough room to stand up. She found her flashlight and rummaged around for a book, figuring she would be there for a while. Muffled voices filtered through the walls from people in other compartments; she told them how she was, and asked after them. Then she sat down to wait.

In another part of that car, Schreiber, Wolf, and the Bournes took stock. Philip Bourne was buried deep in the wreckage, Wolf was next to him, and Schreiber was closest to the surface. Across the hall Roma Bourne, bleeding from a severe scalp wound, listened to distant voices crying and praying. She called out for Philip. He didn’t answer, but another voice said he was okay. From outside she heard someone yell “Fire!” and her anger turned to stark, helpless terror.

Philip couldn’t believe he was alive. His compartment had collapsed around him, leaving barely enough space for his body. A vise of paneling and metal immobilized his head, his arm was pinned over him, and the bunk pressed against his chest, making it difficult to breathe and talk. In the adjacent cabin, Margaret Wolf wiggled parts of her body to check for damage. Aside from some cuts, she was all right. Suddenly, in the darkness she heard what sounded like cellophane crackling. Fire! she thought fearfully.

Wolf and Schreiber, who had a broken arm, began to talk, then pray together. Philip Bourne found it too hard to talk in his predicament, so Wolf suggested they became Bourne’s sole link with the outside world, his only hope that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

Through a hole, Schreiber could see a three-ton wheel assembly hanging precariously a few feet above him. He made a splint out of a piece of broken fiberglass, wrapping a sheet around it with his teeth and his good arm. Then he heard the crackling sound. A moment later he realized it was only dirt trickling down on broken fiberglass. (The only fire occurred in a few railroad ties that burned harmlessly near the lead engine.)

Schreiber poked another shard of fiberglass through the hole to let anyone outside know there were people still alive in the sleeper. “Here, there’s something moving,” he heard someone shout. They had been found.

In one of several strokes of fortune that blessed the rescue effort, the two nearest hospitals—the Medical Center in Burlington and Fanny Allen Hospital in Winooski—were in the midst of shift changes as news of the accident came in. Those on night duty were still there, and the day shift was on its way in, doubling the available help. At the Medical Center, radio dispatcher Sean Leach had brought his own police scanner in as usual to “get a jump on things” should trouble occur. At 6:59 he heard some chatter over at Essex Junction about a train derailment. Normally, Leach is supposed to wait until someone asks him for assistance, but he knew Amtrak’s schedule and feared the worst. By the time he was formally notified a minute later, Leach had already called out ambulances from Richmond and the University of Vermont.

Emergency Room Resident Steve Payne came into the radio room to listen. At 7:10 Leach began calling out heavy rescue fire trucks with special extraction equipment. Better to have too much equipment than too little, he thought. At 7:13 Essex Junction police reported five injuries, one serious. Leach dispatched Colchester Rescue. A minute later came a report that someone was pinned. At 7:16 Williston Fire Department reported multiple injuries and requested six ambulances. Two minutes later the Essex Junction police dispatcher phoned with an electrifying message: “Send me everything you’ve got,” she said frantically. “We’ve got dozens of injuries and three people are trapped and the train’s on fire!”

Payne grabbed a never-used disaster kit and headed for the scene, the first of five doctors who eventually went out.

Mike Cote was alerted at 7:00 by his brother Marc, who was working at IBM and heard the first call from Essex Junction. Several years before Cote, owner of the one of the state’s largest crane services, had been called in on a freight derailment. Without waiting to be asked, Cote immediately ordered a 65-ton crane sent out to the crash site and notified a half-dozen area contractors to stand by.

At 7:15 Governor Richard Snelling, awakened at home by a call from the Essex Junction police, called Donald Edwards, the state adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, and asked if he could assist the local authorities. Then Snelling rushed to the site to help organize the effort, staying throughout the day.

For the National Guard it was perfect timing: a 2,400-man contingent was about to leave for maneuvers in Ft. Drum, New York. An hour later and they would have left. General Edwards ordered four helicopters, several medical and maintenance units totaling about 170 men, and a huge tank retriever to head on over. He hopped into a fifth ‘copter and located a clearing near the wreck with barely 10 feet of blade clearance for the pilots who would fly out the most seriously injured.

The enormously complex rescue operation broke down into four overlapping phases. First, all passengers not trapped had to be moved to waiting ambulances. Then those trapped had to be freed. Next, a hundred yards of forest had to be cleared and a road built to the edge of the tracks for a 125-ton crane Mike Cote was bringing down from Georgia, Vermont. The stream had to be diverted, which meant constructing a 500-foot-long, eight-foot-high earthen dam. Finally, the cars themselves had to be separated and removed.

Ninety minutes after the crash the first groups of passengers began arriving at the two hospitals, and by noon most had been examined and admitted for treatment or released. Out at the wreck site, a waiting game began as the rescue teams struggled with twisted steel and aluminum. Nobody knew how many were trapped; estimates ranged from 12 to 40. (The final count was fewer than a dozen.)

Inside the wreckage, Judy Loriaux was watching the word “toilet” on a wall before her slowly disappear behind another panel; her crumpled compartment was inexorably closing in on her. Nineteen-year-old Richard St. George of the Charlotte Fire Department crawled into a tight space next to her, reached in through a small opening and grabbed her hand. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said. Handing Loriaux his glove to cover her face, St. George began cutting away a door panel that blocked the exit. Suddenly there was a shout outside: a fireman with his hand on the car had felt it move ever so slightly. St. George scurried out until the danger was past.

When he returned, St. George promised he wouldn’t leave again, and for the next two hours he remained wedged inside the sleeper with Loriaux, talking bicycling and discussing strategies to get her out. She in turn kept those buried below her informed. Finally, after seven hours, St. George opened up an escape passage, and as Loriaux was pulled out by a dozen helping hands, hundreds of rescuers whistled and applauded. “Oh, what a beautiful day,” she said. St. George, weak and dehydrated, ended up in the hospital with her.

Humor surfaced at odd moments. Neil Driver, hearing one of the trapped passengers calling from inside the car, ordered everyone to shut down their saws and jackhammers so he could listen.

“What do you want?” Driver asked. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, fine,” the voice replied. “What time do you think I’ll get to Montreal?”

A half-hour later the voice called out again. All work stopped. “What do you need?” Driver asked.

“Can’t find any magazines down here. You got any up there?” Driver promised him a good book when he got out.

John Workman, a Burlington fireman, collapsed of dehydration after a -dangerous, laborious morning inside the wreck helping to free passenger Theodore Zemojtel. Zemojtel was wheeled into the emergency room 15 minutes after Workman arrived. The two hadn’t met, but Zemojtel’s voice sounded familiar to Workman. “You wouldn’t be Ted by any chance?” he asked from his stretcher.

“Are you John?” Zemojtel said. “I want to shake your hand. I’ll never forget your name as long as I live.”

One by one the passengers, some seriously injured, some barely scratched, were extricated. The body of Evans Carr, 60, of New York City, was removed shortly before noon. Roma Bourne was pulled out early and taken to the Medical Center. Her husband Philip, Gerald Schreiber, and Margaret Wolf were more difficult. Rescue teams started to work first on Schreiber, who was closest. Ed Lacroix, a volunteer with Essex Junction Rescue, squeezed down between two wrecked cars to keep Schreiber’s spirits up, passing him blankets and flashlights and explaining what the firemen were doing. As the compartment shrank, Schreiber calmly suggested ways they could get to him until they finally broke through the bottom with axes.

Wolf was next. As the rescuers worked, her compartment, like the others, slowly began to cave in, forcing her into a fetal ball. She kept reassuring Philip Bourne, who was concerned he would be forgotten. The firemen wanted to come in through a window, so she covered herself with a mattress and sheets and they burst through. One last panel remained, and when they yanked it aside, she felt a draft of fresh air. As they carried her off on a stretcher, she sat bolt upright. “Now don’t forget,” she said. “There’s a man in number 17. Please get him out.”

All day long Roma Bourne wondered if her husband was still alive. A nurse herself, she knew when a hospital staff was preparing a patient for bad news. A psychiatric nurse dropped by, and later they phoned her brother to come to Burlington. At 5:00 P.M. another nurse came in, smiling. “They just got your husband out,” she said. “He’s alive and in a room down the hall.” Obligingly, the staff rolled their beds into the hall, and for a few minutes the couple clutched hands and stared at each other.

Meanwhile, construction crews worked furiously to complete the road and the dam. Around 4:00 P.M. Cote’s big crane arrived from Georgia, where it had been dismantled in half the normal time and escorted over the interstate by state police. An hour later the road was nearly ready, the dam was finished, and pumps were diverting the water around the site. All but two of the passengers, Helen Johnson, from White Plains, New York, and Peter Hofmann, one of the cyclists, were out and accounted for. They had been in compartments 13 and 14 under the crushed portion of the sleeper. Firemen with stethoscopes listened for sounds inside, but heard none. Everyone clung to the hope that they could be alive but paralyzed, unable to respond. To get at them, the wreckage would have to be pulled apart.

Under the glare of National Guard spotlights, as the crane lifted cars out of the gap, the firemen dismantled. the sleeper. Half an hour past midnight they found, Johnson; ten minutes later they reached Hofmann. Neither was alive. The most massive and complicated rescue in Vermont history was over.

Five people died and 137 others were injured, but the toll might have been much worse had not the rescue operation been executed so smoothly. “Extraordinary” was the way Patricia Goldman of the National Transportation Safety Board described it. Even the rescuers were surprised. “I’ve been involved in rescue operations for 30 years,” said Essex Rescue founder Don Hamlin, “and I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude. I just stood there several times in amazement at how smoothly it was going, how things we’d ask for were appearing as if by magic. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about as close to that as you could come.”

A final note: Since the accident, a special weather radio activated by the National Weather Service in Burlington has been installed in the dispatcher’s office in St. Albans. The Vermont Central Railroad will never be caught off guard again.

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