Are You Prepared If A Toxic Train Derails and Explodes?

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I live in Montana where it is often bitterly cold in the winter. On February 2, 1989, it was 5:00 AM and 29 degrees below zero when all of Helena got rocked out of their beds by a cataclysmic explosion, catastrophic conflagration, and a toxic cloud of fumes rolling across town from a train derailment. It was a real-life survival scenario, unexpected AND unanticipated.

Guest post by Janet Spencer

image: first responders at train derailment

What led to the train derailment?

In February of 1989, it was 29 below zero, and a long train was crossing the state and heading up the Continental Divide just west of town. When the overworked heater went out in the engine, the engineers stopped the train in order to swap engines so they could have heat. They set the brakes, disconnected the train, swapped the engines, and then went to re-connect the train, only to find it……missing.

As it turns out, brake fluid congeals at about 20 below zero, becoming useless. Montana Rail Link didn’t know that at the time, and neither did the two hapless engineers. So, 44 fully loaded rail cars rolled backward out of control nine miles from the top of the continental divide, colliding with a side-tracked train right in the center of town.

image: first responders at train derailment
This photo from 20 years ago shows the scene of the wreck the day after the explosion.

What was the effect?

Every window was shattered for a mile in all directions. Thousand-pound pieces of train rained down upon the adjacent college and nearby business district. The power was out. The phones were dead. The police could not communicate with the firemen, the firemen couldn’t communicate with the railroad, and nobody communicated with the citizens.

It was a mess. A horrifying mess.

What I did When the Trains Exploded

Living two miles from the wreck, my front door was blown open, and I was rudely awakened to a house that had no light, no heat, and no phone.

Tried to find light

Seeing the glow rising from downtown, I knew something was very, very bad. I needed light, but all I could find was a couple of decorative candles. I knew I had a flashlight, but it was packed in the camping gear, and I needed a flashlight in order to find it.

Tried to find a working radio

I tried to find a radio, but all my radios required electricity. Without electricity, the engine heater that kept the oil in my car from congealing and the battery from freezing was not functioning, so I went outside to start the car in order to keep it running in case I had to leave. I turned on the car radio and tried to tune into the Emergency Broadcast System but found nothing but static. All Helena radio stations were off the air.

All my life, I had grown up listening to the Emergency Broadcast System doing radio checks: “This is a test. This is only a test. If this had been a REAL emergency….” Now, it was a REAL emergency, and the Emergency Broadcast System, which was supposed to tell me what was happening and what to do, was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, the Emergency Broadcast System runs on electricity with a battery backup, and the battery had gone dead within minutes at 29 below zero.

So, I did the only thing I could: I paced the kitchen floor and waited for someone to tell me what to do.

Help and Information Arrived Slowly

It was only by great good fortune that no one was killed or injured that day, though the heart of my city was utterly shattered.

By mid-morning, one radio station was on the air providing a steady stream of information and directions. The Red Cross was asking people with running cars to help with evacuation since there were so many citizens, particularly college students and the elderly, who had no heat at home and dead batteries in their cars. So that’s what I spent my day doing: shuttling bewildered, shivering, weeping people around town while gawking at the damage done to the homes and businesses of my friends and neighbors.

How the Train Derailment Impacted Me

This event had a profound effect on me.

It was the first time I ever had to confront the fact that catastrophic things happen in the blink of an eye. It was the first time I ever realized how absurdly unprepared I was to face such an event. And most importantly, this was when my faith in “the authorities” to handle such a situation shattered.

This was the beginning of my preparedness habit, because I never again wanted to be caught in a situation where I did not have the things I needed on hand. I was never again willing to believe that some mysterious “Someone Else” was going to handle the problem, absolving me from the responsibility of taking care of myself.

From that point forward, I simply assumed that I would be far better off in any emergency if I were prepared in advance to take care of my own needs.

I’ve been a prepper ever since.

What Can You Do To Be Ready For The Next Emergency?

If you’re feeling unprepared for any kind of disaster, including a train derailment, you don’t have to! In less than two hours, The Survival Mom Prepping 101 course teaches you how to create your own customized survival plan that fits your budget, home, and family circumstances. With instant access to the Prepping 101 material, you can be better prepared for the next emergency, TODAY!

Visit Janet Spencer’s blog, Calamity Janet.

18 thoughts on “Are You Prepared If A Toxic Train Derails and Explodes?”

  1. Stealth Spaniel

    Wow! It only takes one event! What an amazing story! When I was in grade school, the Watts riots happened. We lived in LA area, but LA is a HUGE city, so it didn’t really affect me-although my parents were on edge. Move forward a few years-from 1965 to 1969 or 70 I think-and we had the Malibu fires. They burned from the ocean forward, so the San Fernando Valley was surrounded. You could not get out-or in! I saw my mom go into action: filling the bathtubs, cookware, getting the flashlights and batteries together,watering like a crazy person outside at all hours, checking her food supplies and lining up the Weber grill. The neighbors were very impressed-all they had done was worry. Consequently, my prepping has improved through various earthquakes, the Rodney King Riots, the almost collapse of the Sepulveda Dam, etc. My mom was a nurse, so she was very focused on “what can we do better? what did we miss?” I think that prepping is a continual learning process and we improve over time. And never ever expect the government to rescue you.

  2. Wow! I’m glad that my mind-changing “disaster” only involved being without electric/water/phones for 4 days. We had a water bed that kept us warm for the first 2 days, a spring in the yard to provide enough water for flushing, and soups that could be eaten out of a can, but it made me realize how ill-prepared I was for such a simple occurence let alone a really serious situation. That was a couple decades ago, and I’ve made a point of making sure we’ll do better if it happens again.

    It’s only been very recently that my kids have finally started taking my preps seriously, but that came about because they faced their first situation where we truly needed the supplies I had stashed away. All of a sudden, Mum’s not so crazy any more!

  3. I have been prepping for decades, though I have never been through events other power loss for three days, and thunderstorms, and financial tights. It is not unusual for people to “ask sister g, she probably has it in her purse”. My cars, HEAVY purse, have saved the day, in many a circumstance. I too am a nurse, and have passed these skills onto our now grown kids. Each time an emergency arose, we should use it improve.

  4. Great story and lessons to be learned from it, but I want to point out one thing. Trains don’t have brake fluid, so there was nothing to congeal. The braking system is all run off air. Sounds to me like the air bled off and they (the train crew) failed to tie any handbrakes.

  5. Great story. Emergencies can come in many forms and being prepared will help us deal with a wide variety of emergencies.

  6. Well, well, well. You had a good crash course in the reality of life! In a push-button, “let George take
    care of it”, order a Ron Santo or Pros Pizza culture where no real substantive preparation for life’s
    quirks is really taught, only those who are industrious and creative will survive. We are headed for
    some economic and world event ‘explosions’ in the not too distant future because our ‘leaders’ like
    the hapless engineers are steering this world into a nasty train wreck that will make your unfortunate
    experience seen ‘picknicish,’ if may use the term. What to do then?

    Chicago, Illinois

  7. My real wake up was Katrina. I was there with others from the ambulance company the day after the storm. Thousands of folks who could have gotten out were stranded because they waited for the government to tell them to leave. When they did it was to late! Now they were waiting for the government to save them! If your life saving plan is for the government to save you your plan has a fatal flaw!

    1. “If your life saving plan is for the government to save you your plan has a fatal flaw!” comment from Ken.

      So so true. I think this should be framed.

  8. Great story! You were so smart to get the car running and help out the people not ready to survive on they on.
    We had a 5 day power outage and Tampa in the summer is bad with no air or even fans. The wife stayed at work all day and I went to the base and hung out at th BX. It was nboty fun sleeping on the floor sweating all night long and she would not give it up in the heat.
    Now I’m somewhat prepared with canned food, flashlights, lantern, generator, and guns. The son keeps trying to eat my canned food and gets whacked when I find some missing.

  9. Former Locomotive Engineer

    As someone else has already noted, train brakes use air, not brake fluid, and most likely the crew neglected to apply hand brakes, or at least a sufficient number of hand brakes, to keep the cars from rolling away. Because it’s so difficult in extremely cold weather to pump sufficient air through a long train’s air brake system (it condenses) to the extent necessary to get the brakes to release again, they may have “bottled” the air by leaving the angle cocks closed on the cars on each end, rather than allowing the air to vent when they uncoupled the locomotives from the train. Bottling air is a big no-no, as is not applying sufficient hand brakes, as made evident by what subsequently took place.

  10. Fact check: trains use air brakes. There is no brake fluid. Air brakes use compressed air lines. When the air pressure in these lines falls, the brakes apply themselves. To release the brakes, the locomotive has an air compressor that pressurizes the lines. Sort of the opposite way hydraulic brakes in a car function.

  11. Loma Prieta, 1989 taught me the value of preparedness in an emergency. Now I have a 15KW propane fueled generator, 500 gallons of propane, a 10KW solar array with battery backup, 5000 gallons of fresh water, a year’s supply of food and a Heathkit HAM radio from 1963 that I can repair myself when it breaks.

    The Boy Scouts of America had it right; Be Prepared!

    Great story BTW!

  12. Well, I hope that when Western governments collapse People spend as much time focusing on the reason why as they seem to have done with this tragic story.

    And, I sure hope they’re analyzing how well prepared they are, or are not, too.

  13. Oops, I meant to write, “when Western governments default” … but maybe it’s the same thing as collapse?

  14. Great disaster example. Often people ask us, “What are you prepping for?” The answer is “We don’t know.” Most of us will encounter at least a short-term disaster in our lives–fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, or wrecked train. I have no idea what’s coming, but I want to be ready.

  15. Trains dont use hydr. brake fluid to make the brakes work . The systems is call the” Westenhouse Brake Systems” and it used air pressure too make the brakes works.

    1. thesurvivalmom

      Yes, this point has already been made. The author may have received her information from local news sources at the time of the event.

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