CHESTER, Mont. (AP) – Trevor Fossen was late for a wedding on Saturday afternoon when he pulled into a dusty gravel road in the Montana countryside as a westbound train approached the crossing in front of him.
The train never reached the level crossing. The next thing Fossen saw was a wall of dust filling the sky.
“I started looking at this, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train had rolled over and derailed,” said Fossen, a 29-year-old farmer.
It was an Amtrak Empire Builder en route from Chicago to Seattle that had derailed, killing three people and injuring dozens. Investigators still don’t know what caused the accident.
Fossen and at least nine others called 911, triggering a chain reaction of help from residents of nearby towns of Joplin and Chester as people mobilized to get people off the train and treat injured passengers and those who were stunned and had suffered bumps, bruises and other less serious injuries.
Volunteer rescuers, firefighters, law enforcement, medical providers and ordinary citizens all worked together to help those whose journeys were so suddenly and violently interrupted, embodying the spirit of a rural part. from the Hi-Line region of Montana near the Canadian border.
Fossen said he started helping first responders get a handful of people out of a leaning train car, then returned to three cars detached from the train and lying on their side. He and others helped pull a seriously injured woman out of a car. Others helped unload the baggage car near the front of the train.
The three that did not survive were identified as Donald Varnadoe, 74, and Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, a married couple from Georgia; and Zachariah Schneider, a 28-year-old man from Illinois. All died at the scene, the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office said.
Dale Fossen, Trevor’s uncle, operates a farm nearby and arrived at the scene shortly after the accident. The 75-year-old amateur photographer said he was not sure what he could do to help, but observed the chaotic scene and took some photos with his cell phone.
Some passengers were standing in the dust, looking stunned, he said. Others were treating their wounds.
“I saw a small child, mother and father, sitting on the train tracks just behind the first car I saw lying on its side,” he said. “The little girl was crying.
Dale Fossen said he climbed a hill and saw the three cars on the side.
“I could see people standing on top of the middle car and ladders and I saw them trying to punch a hole in the roof that was on the side,” he said. The effort to cut the wagon failed, even with the Jaws of Life gear.
He spoke to a passenger who said he was in one of the cars when she started to tip over to the side and a large spring went through the windshield near him.
“So he grabbed something as the car rolled over,” Fossen said. “He said the only thing preventing him from going under the train was that it was hanging on.”
Meanwhile, Liberty Medical Center in the small community of Chester called all of its staff – including housekeeping – and most responded, said Bev Halter, director of human resources. They sorted 31 patients on Saturday evening.
“We may be a small critical access hospital in a remote location, but we were able to show the extent of our commitment to be here for those in need,” Halter said in a statement. “We are very grateful to this facility, our employees and the community who have come together to provide the best response and care possible.”
The seriously injured were transported by ambulance or airlifted to other hospitals in the area that had called and offered help, said Sarah Robbin, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Liberty County. Six people remained hospitalized on Tuesday.
Those who were not seriously injured were loaded onto school buses and the senior citizen bus and taken to a school gymnasium and community center in Chester, where residents helped them charge their cell phones to call emergency services. families and health workers assessed them. Some took showers and the passengers were offered food.
Ricky Maan, owner of the Chester supermarket, said he provided water and ice, made pizza and allowed residents to take everything passengers needed, including towels, wipes and bandages.
“I told my cashier not to charge them,” said Maan, whose family bought groceries five years ago. “We can help people who have already suffered. “
He added, “We like to help all the time. It’s our community. . . . We lived in a big city, you never see like that. But in a small town, everyone’s like, once something happens, it’s all together.
A religious group brought in ingredients for making sandwiches. Some people drove passengers to Great Falls or Kalispell that night to reunite them with hospitalized family members, and others took passengers to Great Falls to catch a return flight, officials said.
Recordings of 911 calls to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office included breathless passengers asking for help, describing injuries to other passengers – including two men with cuts to their heads – and at least one Amtrak employee describing a colleague’s injuries and saying there were over 90 people on board. People on the freeway who saw the derailment also called to make sure it had been reported.
“We had a derailment. It’s urgent, ”said a passenger. “Bring as many ambulances as you can.”
Robbin, the disaster and emergency services coordinator, said the response through the Hi-Line was “fantastic”.
“We can’t thank our partners enough, who came from all over and did what they had to do, and it will be just one of those things that I don’t know we’ll ever be able to pay back, but just know when they pass. the call, we will be there for them, ”she said.
The county offers a debriefing led by a counselor on Wednesday.
“This is for members of the community to discuss their experiences and for those who may have difficulty dealing with recent events in our community,” the notice reads. An advisor will be available Thursday for one-on-one interviews, if needed.
“Please contact your neighbors, friends and family to support them during this time,” the notice reads.
The railway line was reopened to traffic early on Tuesday, said Lena Kent, spokesperson for the BNSF Railway.
Amy Beth Hanson, Associated Press