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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

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.

Updated Thursday, October 17th, 2013

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