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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

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.

Updated Thursday, October 17th, 2013

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