Area rises up to help in deraillment


Last updated 12/29/2021 at 11:11am

Havre Daily News/File photo

Crews work on cleanup and inspection at the site of a Sept. 25 Amtrak derailment just west of Joplin.

In September of this year the area saw the derailment of an Amtrak train near Joplin that killed three and injured dozens of others. Though the story of the derailment itself was one of tragic loss and injury, the response to the accident and outpouring of support from the local communities was a story of hope.

Saturday, Sept. 25, around 4 p.m. an Empire Builder train derailed just outside of Joplin killing Marjorie and Donald Varnadoe of Georgia, 72 and 74 respectively, and Zach Schneider of Illinois, 28.

The westbound train, carrying 141 people including 16 Amtrak employees, consisted of two engines and 10 cars, eight of which derailed with some tipping over.

The cause of the accident is still unknown, as the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating evidence documented at the scene, but several lawsuits have been filled against Amtrak and BNSF by passengers, including one from Schneider's wife and another from an Amtrak employee, alleging negligence on the part of the companies.

Aubrey Green of Portland, another one of the people on the train when it derailed, was in Havre tracking down a train-related mystery from his childhood before getting on the train.

In an interview a few days after the crash he said he was in the middle of the first car when he felt it tilt north slightly and before long he was looking out the window at dirt.

"I thought, 'Oh no,'" Green said. "... It was real quick. I heard a noise and all of a sudden I'm on my side."

He said he got a bump on the head which bled a little but he didn't even notice it until someone told him. He said the injury wasn't serious, but others weren't as lucky.

He said he stepped over three people on his way out of the car, one said they couldn't get up, one was laying on the ground clearly in a lot of pain, and another wasn't moving at all.

"I don't think he was dead," Green said, "just unconscious."

However, he said, the worst he saw was the last car, with one man clearly dead.

Green said he was taken to a local school gymnasium before being put on a small white school bus to Shelby, and was on his way home by the morning of Sept. 27.

The known details

While many have speculated about the cause of the accident little is known as investigators continue to study the incident.

A preliminary report released by NTSB in late October provided few clues, mostly confirming facts that were already reported, but that is typical of preliminary reports like this and NTSB has said as investigation continues the report will be supplemented or corrected.

The report says the area the train was traveling on had a speed limit of 79 mph and the train was going between 75 and 78 mph when emergency brakes were activated.

It says weather was clear with no precipitation at the time of the accident.

NTSB has inspected the track and equipment, reviewed signal and train control data logs, obtained data from from the lead locomotive's forward-facing image and event recorders, and conducted interviews with relevant parties, but the investigation is ongoing, the report says.

It says future investigation will focus on track and engineering equipment, survival factors and passenger railcar crashworthiness.

Damage is estimated by Amtrak to be more than $22 million.

BNSF Railway owns and operates the tracks The Empire Builder runs along across the Hi-Line on its route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

At a press conference immediately after the derailment BNSF spokesperson Matt Jones said that the tracks where the derailment occurred had last been inspected the Thursday before the derailment on Saturday.

The area of train tracks near Joplin damaged by the deadly derailment were repaired by Sept. 28 and full service was restored by the 29th.

First responders leap into action

While the circumstances and cause of the derailment remain unclear, what is clear is that area first responders from across the Hi-Line and beyond responded to the derailment quickly, coordinating with each other to provide immediate assistance.

Liberty County Disaster and Emergency Services Manager Sarah Robbin said during a press conference after the derailment that it was a terrible accident, but this is what first responders are here for.

"It was an all-hands-on-deck situation that we talk about and train for," Robbin said.

Emergency responders and personnel from counties around the area responded to the scene as local residents helped at the site providing supplies and food as well as places for people to stay.

An incident command center was established in the Liberty Community and Senior Center.

Law enforcement from the region helped secure the scene and direct traffic, and various emergency responders including from the Havre Fire Department and rural fire and ambulance services responded.

Montana Highway Patrol reported shortly after the derailment that reduced lanes and traffic delays were caused by the derailment.

Hill County Sheriff Jamie Ross said two of his deputies were at the scene for eight hours each.

Havre Fire Chief Mel Paulson said his department dispatched an ambulance with a crew and the command vehicle.

"We went over to help in any way we could," Paulson said.

Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Amanda Frickel was also among those who responded.

In an interview the day after the derailment Frickel said she only spent 20 minutes on the scene before she needed to get to work in the triage center, but those 20 minutes were difficult, especially when seeing just how bad the accident was.

"Nothing prepares you for when you show up on a scene where the word casualties is being thrown around," she said.

She said it was difficult knowing that the derailment took three lives, but it's important to remember that more than 140 people were still alive even after a derailment that threw many train cars off the track onto their sides.

Frickel said if it had been winter, or even if the weather had been bad, the situation could have been a lot worse as there were a few people who needed to get to health care facilities immediately when first responders found them.

She said she wasn't able to spend time talking to people before they were taken elsewhere, but she heard a story about a family from Wolf Point who got on the train to Seattle to see a family member who was in really bad shape.

Frickel said first responders did a great job caring for them and getting them on their way as soon as possible, before it was too late.

She said she's proud of her colleagues, the counties that responded to the crisis and the larger Hi-Line community and all that they did.

"I'm proud to be a Montanan right now ... the entire Hi-Line came together." Frickel said.

She said triage ran like a well-oiled machine with everyone working insanely hard and fast, but also carefully and efficiently.

Frickel said the help of local nurses who took vitals and made sure everyone's health needs were met in this stressful time were especially crucial to the operation and they performed admirably.

She also said local doctors and pharmacists were on scene to help people who had been separated from their personal effects including medicine they need, a less-well-known aspect of first response.

Among them was Kelcey Diemert and his wife Nancy, pharmacists who split their time between pharmacies throughout the area.

Diemert said he and his wife got to town after first responders had saved everyone from immediate danger, but many passengers were left without the everyday medicine they needed, since many couldn't retrieve their personal effects, which is where the Diemerts came in.

"We got a call that several passengers didn't have access to their luggage and medication, and they were going to be in need," he said.

Diemert said he and his wife didn't really know what they were getting into when they first departed for Chester fearing the worst, but first responders had done their jobs well and the ongoing effort to keep everyone healthy and feeling safe was highly organized and well executed despite the circumstances.

"We thought, 'Well this is gonna be chaos,'" Diemert said. "But it wasn't."

Diemert said passengers were calm and thankful for the help, and for the most part all he and his wife ended up needing to do was interview people and make sure they had everything they needed, things like inhalers, heart medications and blood pressure medicine, which they provided free of charge.

He said it was inspiring to see everyone working together and coordinating as well as they did, professional and otherwise.

"It was a great community effort for sure," he said.

In the wake of the accident, the Hi-Line's first responders have been universally praised by everyone including Montana's governor and congressional delegation who all said their service was a testament to the area and the state's resilience and care for others.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn also thanked everyone for their support.

"We want to extend our deep gratitude and sincere appreciation to the Joplin and greater Liberty County communities and other Montana counties and their selfless first responders, hospital staff and law enforcement for their immediate and ongoing help to support of all those aboard the Empire Builder for responding with such urgency, compassion and patience," Flynn said.

Amtrak personnel responded to the incident, as well, but the passenger rail service still praised local first responders in the area and offered its assistance and condolences to people involved.

"We are in mourning today for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment of the Empire Builder train Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, on the BNSF Railway, as well as the many others who were injured," Flynn said in a statement released the day after the derailment. "We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers."

Amtrak sent an incident response team with emergency personnel and Amtrak leadership officials to the scene and created a family assistance center in Great Falls with family assistance liaisons to reach out to injured people and their families, Flynn said, as well as dispatching nurse case managers to help the people hospitalized.

"Amtrak's immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time," Flynn said.

Amtrak's praise of local first responders and medical professionals wasn't just in words, however.

Last month, Amtrak Executive Vice President/Chief Safety Officer Steve Predmore, Amtrak Senior Director Mary Carlson Bis and Amtrak Police Deputy Chief Joe Patterson were in Chester to show Amtrak's appreciation and to present pledges to the city of Chester and to The Red Cross, which also responded to the crash.

Predmore and Bis presented certificates of appreciation and an Amtrak pledge for $50,000 to the city of Chester and another to the Red Cross, also of $50,000.

Officials from BNSF Railway followed suit, awarding Liberty County and the Hi-Line Health Foundation grants from the BNSF Railroad Foundation.

BNSF Executive Director of Public Affairs Matt Jones, BNSF Ground Foreman of Montana West Havre Division Jack Murray and BNSF Havre Terminal Manager Luke Davi presented the contributions.

A grant for $50,000, presented to Liberty County commissioners Maureen "Morb" Wicks, Larry Hendrickson and Joette Woods along with Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester, will be utilized to support the Liberty County Sheriff's Office, Liberty County EMS, Joplin Fire District and West Chester Fire District.

Hi-Line Health Foundation Chair Judy Tempel accepted a $25,000 grant that will be used to assist in the foundation's efforts at Liberty Medical Center.

Following the Amtrak derailment, BNSF had been in close contact with Liberty County commissioners and community members to coordinate assistance efforts and to thank all those involved in the response for timely and heartfelt outreach. BNSF was complimentary to the various north-central agencies that responded to the emergency.

"Our community is grateful to the BNSF Railroad Foundation for contributing to our county response resources," Commissioner Wicks said. "We have all appreciated the close working relationship we have developed over the past few months and are looking forward to using these funds to have a positive impact in the Golden Triangle Area."

Larger community efforts

While the contributions of first responders and medical professionals has been widely praised, everyday people in the area also provided aid in a communitywide effort to provide relief.

Local residents and businesses came together, coordinating the delivery of food and blankets, providing space for people to stay, and comforting those involved in the accident.

"Honestly it's hard to remember, it all happened so fast," said Jesse Anderson, manager of the MX Motel in Chester, which provided rooms to people involved in the crash.

While the prevailing feeling expressed by people in Chester and Joplin, Anderson included, has been pride in their community for their collective response, that Saturday evening was a frantic dash to get people help and some still didn't feel like they had processed what happened, even a few days on.

"It's hard to even know what your feelings are, because we're all so busy all the time. Like, there is so much to do and so few people," he said, "... I don't even know if it's sunk in, at least it hasn't for me."

He said the first thing he remembers hearing that evening was the town's emergency siren.

"The siren went off four times, and I never heard that before," he said. "Two, that's an ambulance call, three that's a fire call, four is supposed to be some major disaster."

He said he initially assumed that someone new at the sheriff's office had made a mistake, but not long after that he spoke to some customers who told him people were talking about a derailment.

He said learning exactly what happened and how bad it was was a surreal experience.

Anderson was born at Liberty County Hospital, delivered by the same doctor who delivered his father, he's lived here all his life, he said, but nothing quite like this had ever happened as far as he can remember.

He said he started getting calls that evening from the family members of people involved in the crash, trying to set them up in his motel, and he and his employees stayed late that night getting people into rooms and driving people to and from the school gymnasium where many of those people were being cared for by first responders and the area's health care specialists.

Anderson said he spoke to an older couple from Michigan who were traveling to visit their son in Seattle and finally meet their new grandchild, something they couldn't do last year due to the pandemic.

He said they told him they'd made this trip by train many times before, but this time the ride seemed a lot rougher, so much so, that they'd decided to get off in Shelby to find another way, just before the train derailed.

Anderson said those he spoke to had mostly gotten over the shock of the derailment, and they all appreciated the town's efforts to help them.

He said he spoke to a man traveling alone, who expressed a sentiment he thinks the community should hear.

"Something like this happens, you want it to happen in the middle of nowhere because the best people live in the middle of nowhere,' that's what he came away thinking," Anderson said. "I think people should be proud of that."

He said the area has few resources, but between a flawless and efficient response from the area's first responders and the community coordinating to help everyone, they did what they could to address this tragic accident.

"I was really proud of what people did, we all are," he said.

Anderson said the first responders of Liberty County, as well as most others in the region, are volunteers and did a great job that night.

Despite their pride in the community, few in Chester, Diemerts and Anderson included, claimed to have done all that much in the end, and that humility was shared by their fellows in Joplin.

Betty Wolery of the Bethel Lutheran Church Quilters said much the same, though many who received her group's blankets that night may disagree.

Wolery said her group has been making quilts since 1957, sending most to Lutheran World Relief to help people around the world, but when her daughter called her about the derailment, saying passengers were in need, she and her fellow quilters wasted no time in getting their surplus supplies out to them.

She said the group couldn't go out to the scene themselves, but were happy to do what ever they could.

"Our ages are between 72 and 92, so we wouldn't have been much help," she said.

Wolery said people like her daughter came from all over the area to help, and she's happy so many did.

Supplies were a big part of the community response to the derailment and a not insignificant amount of those supplies were provided by the family-owned Chester Supermarket.

Brothers Manjit and C.J. Maan said their family's supermarket provided all the supplies they could, which Manjit Maan said mostly consisted of water, ice, a whole lot of pizza and some bandages.

He said in 26 years of living in the U.S. he'd never seen anything quite like this derailment and he and his brother are glad they were able to help the community in their efforts to help people.

"Everyone from Chester was helping, they didn't care who the person was, they just want to feed people, get them blankets, water all that stuff," C.J. Maan said.

They also provided food to the people working on the track in the aftermath of the derailment, Maan said.

"We wanted to feed them, too, because they have to work all night," he said.

Among the many who praised the first responders and the community at large for their response to the accident was Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.

"This was an all-of-the-Hi-Line effort," he said in a press conference the day after the derailment. "You made Montana proud."

Gianforte said it wasn't just the first responders, but everyday community members who came to help however they could.

"This town, community and, in fact the entire Hi-Line stepped up," he said.


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