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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

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.

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