Rural Montana banded together in swift train wreck response

CHESTER, Mont. (AP) — Trevor Fossen was running late for a wedding Saturday afternoon when he turned onto a dusty, gravel road in rural Montana as a westbound train approached the crossing in front of him.

The train never made it to the crossing. The next thing Fossen saw was a wall of dust fill the sky.

“I started looking at that, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train had tipped 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 crash.

Fossen and at least nine other people called 911, setting off a chain reaction of help from residents in the nearby towns of Joplin and Chester as people jumped into action to get people off the train and care for injured passengers and those who were stunned and had suffered bumps, bruises and other less serious injuries.

Volunteer emergency responders, firefighters, law enforcement, medical providers and regular citizens all worked together to help those whose trip was so suddenly and violently interrupted, embodying the spirit of a rural part of Montana’s Hi-Line region near the Canadian border.

Fossen said he started to help first responders get a handful of people out of a train car that was leaning, then moved back to three cars that were detached from the train and were lying on their sides. He and others helped get a badly injured woman out of a car. Others helped unload the baggage car near the front of the train.

The three who didn’t survive were identified as Donald Varnadoe, 74, and Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, a married couple from Georgia; and Zachariah Schneider, a 28-year-old from Illinois. All died at the scene, the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office said.

Dale Fossen, Trevor’s uncle, farms nearby and arrived at the scene shortly after the crash. The 75-year-old amateur photographer said he wasn’t sure what he could do to help, but he observed the chaotic scene and took some pictures with his cellphone.

Some passengers stood in the dust, looking bewildered, he said. Others tended to their wounds.

“I saw a small child, mother and father, sitting on the railroad tracks right behind the first car that I saw laying sideways,” he said. “The little girl was crying.”

Dale Fossen said he walked over a rise and saw the three cars on their sides.

“I could see people standing on top of the middle car and ladders and I saw them trying to cut a hole in the roof that was laying on the side,” he said. The effort to cut into the rail car failed, even with the Jaws of Life equipment.

He talked to one passenger who said he was in one of the cars when it started to tip sideways and a large spring went through the windshield by him.

“So he grabbed ahold of something as the car tipped over,” Fossen said. “He said the only thing that kept him from going underneath the train was him holding on.”

Meanwhile, Liberty Medical Center in the small community of Chester called in all of its staff — including housekeeping — and most responded, said Bev Halter, director of human resources. They triaged 31 patients Saturday evening.

“We may be a small Critical Access Hospital in a remote location, but we were able to show the size of our commitment to being here for those in need,” Halter said in a statement. “We are so thankful for this facility, our employees, and the community who pulled together to provide the best response and care possible.”

People who were seriously injured were taken by ambulance or flown to other hospitals in the region that had called and offered their help, said Sarah Robbin, the Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator for Liberty County. Six people remained hospitalized Tuesday.

Those who were not seriously hurt were loaded onto school buses and the senior citizen bus and taken to a school gym and community center in Chester, where residents helped them charge their cellphones to call families and health care workers evaluated them. Some took showers, and the passengers were offered food.

Ricky Maan, owner of the Chester Supermarket, said he provided water and ice, made some pizzas and allowed residents to take whatever else was needed for the passengers, including napkins, wipes and bandages.

“I told my cashier, don’t charge them,” said Maan, whose family bought the grocery store five years ago. “We can help those people who already hurt.”

He added: “We like to help all the time. This is our community. . . . We used to live in a big city, we never see like this. But in small town, everybody is like, once something happens, is all together.”

A religious group brought in ingredients to make 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 flight home, officials said.

Recordings of the 911 calls to the Liberty County sheriff’s office included some breathless passengers asking for help, describing injuries to fellow passengers — including two men with cuts on their heads — and at least one Amtrak employee describing a co-worker’s injuries and saying there were more than 90 people on board. People who had been driving along the highway and saw the derailment also called to make sure it had been reported.

“We’ve had a derailment. It’s urgent,” one passenger said. “Get as many ambulances out there as you can.”

Robbin, the Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator, said the response across the Hi-Line was “fantastic.”

“We can’t thank our partners enough, who came from everywhere and did what they needed to do, and it’s just going to be one of those things that I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to repay, but know that when they put out the call, we will be there for them,” she said.

The county is offering a counselor-led debriefing on Wednesday.

“This is for community members to discuss their experiences and for those that may be struggling to process the recent events in our community,” the notice states. A counselor will be available on Thursday for individual discussions, as needed.

“Please reach out to your neighbors, friends and family members, to support them during this time,” the notice says.

The rail line was reopened to traffic early Tuesday, said Lena Kent, a BNSF Railway spokesperson.