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Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont

Flood Derails Train outside Williston, Vermont
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“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.

Under the glare of National Guard spotlights, as the crane lifted cars out of the gap, the firemen dismantled. the sleeper. Half an hour past midnight they found, Johnson; ten minutes later they reached Hofmann. Neither was alive. The most massive and complicated rescue in Vermont history was over.

Five people died and 137 others were injured, but the toll might have been much worse had not the rescue operation been executed so smoothly. “Extraordinary” was the way Patricia Goldman of the National Transportation Safety Board described it. Even the rescuers were surprised. “I’ve been involved in rescue operations for 30 years,” said Essex Rescue founder Don Hamlin, “and I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude. I just stood there several times in amazement at how smoothly it was going, how things we’d ask for were appearing as if by magic. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about as close to that as you could come.”

A final note: Since the accident, a special weather radio activated by the National Weather Service in Burlington has been installed in the dispatcher’s office in St. Albans. The Vermont Central Railroad will never be caught off guard again.

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