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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont
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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.

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