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Wauneta, Imperial, Palisade emergency responders answer the call for help at Dundy County train derailment PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 01 September 2011 20:15

Members of the Wauneta EMS squad work with other EMTs from across southwest Nebraska to assist passengers and crew members injured when an Amtrak train derailed in a rural area of Dundy County approximately 4 miles west of Benkelman.

 

21 injured when passenger train hits construction equipment

 


Engines from Amtrak’s No. 6 California Zephyr route derailed and toppled to their side after striking a crane being used to demolish an aging grain elevator at Doane, located between Benkelman and Parks. EMTs, firefighters and law enforcement officers from Wauneta, Palisade and Imperial were among the 200 responders assisting after the accident. 

 

By Tina Kitt

The Wauneta Breeze

 

Emergency responders from Wauneta, Palisade and Imperial joined others from across southwest Nebraska, northwest Kansas and northeast Colorado in responding to what many feared would be a grim scenario of disastrous proportion.

Emergency medical technicians, firefighters and other first responders braced themselves for a situation they had been warned could involve dozens of serious injuries in a train/vehicle accident and subsequent derailment of the Amtrak passenger train in the sparsely populated reaches of far southwest Nebraska.

Thankfully, when they arrived at the scene, they found crew members calmly helping most passengers climb down from the train.

 

The collision occurred when an Amtrak train en route from California to Chicago struck a piece of construction equipment being used on a demolition project west of Benkelman in rural Dundy County Friday morning, forcing two locomotives and several cars off the rails but causing no critical injuries, officials said.

The train, running Amtrak’s California Zephyr route from Emeryville, Calif., to Chicago, had 175 passengers and 17 crew members on board when it struck the crane shortly before 8 a.m. at an old railway loading stop called Doane.

An old tin-covered wooden elevator was being torn down at the site, with the crane used in the dismantling process.

The two locomotives left the tracks and tipped over, but the derailed passenger cars did not topple, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. The other cars on the 10-car train remained on the tracks.

Magliari said the train collided with the crane. “Our understanding is a portion of a crane working on a demolition project near the tracks became an obstruction to us as our train approached, either across the tracks or on laying on the tracks, obstructing the path of the train,” he noted.

 

Officials reported that 21 people were injured in the incident and transported by ambulance to area hospitals. Those hurt in the crash were taken to hospitals in Benkelman, Imperial and Wray, Colo., where most were treated for back, shoulder and neck injuries.

None of the injuries were critical, and most of the injured had been released by Friday evening, said Dundy County emergency director Elaine Frasier.

“We all felt very fortunate that no one was critically injured,” added Frasier.

 

Over the course of the morning Friday the other passengers were shuttled by school buses to Benkelman’s Dundy County-Stratton High School where they were picked up later that afternoon by private buses provided by Amtrak or in vans and taxis hired by passengers.

In the meantime school staff, community members and area volunteers hosted the stranded passengers at the school, passing out bottled water and grilling hamburgers and hotdogs on gas grills outside the school’s commons area as the community worked to feed their stranded guests.

The amazing response was not lost on the passengers.

Michael Trombly, along with his wife, Annie, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Mikayla, was in the process of relocating back to the Boston area from northern California as they crossed into Nebraska aboard the Amtrak train.

Looking out the window at the rural landscape after the crash, Trombly commented to his wife, “It’s going to be a long, long time before anyone is going to make it out here to get us.”

His estimation was dead wrong.

“Eight minutes. We had help here in eight minutes,” said Trombly, shaking his head in amazement. “What a testament to the people of this region.”

Looking around the DCS gym as kids played and people filled plates with chips and burgers, Trombly drank it all in with his eyes.

“You know what I am taking away from this whole experience? Not the wreck, not how bad it could have been. But how amazing the response from the people of this area has been. Look around, these people are all volunteers. It brings tears to my eyes just to talk about it, to think about how kind everyone has been, so caring and gracious.”

 

Michael and Annie Trombly were making the move back to the Boston area with their young daughter Mikayla last week when the train derailment had them spending a few hours in Benkelman before continuing east. They said they were overwhelmed with the quick response of emergency responders and the outpouring of care shown from people across the region.

 

It was a sentiment repeated often as officials assessed the lack of life-threatening injuries and the tremendous outpouring of assistance from as far away as North Platte as hospitals were put on alert to expect incoming injured.

“If there’s such a thing as a good train wreck, this is it,” said Benkelman Fire Chief Gene Zimbelman. “No fatalities, limited injuries and an amazing response from the people of the area. I can’t thank you first responders enough. I can’t give you too much praise.”

Help came from as far as Yuma and Wray in Colorado, McCook and Indianola to the east, from Imperial, Wauneta, Palisade, Hayes Center, and from Bird City, McDonald and St. Francis in Kansas, noted Zimbelman. He noted that preliminary numbers indicate that about 200 emergency responders arrived on the scene, at area hospitals or at the DCS High School.

Benkelman Fire Chief Gene Zimbelman, above left, expresses his gratitude to Palisade Fire Chief Joe Vrbas and other first responders gathered outside the Dundy County-Stratton High School late Friday morning after all passengers and crew members had been safely moved from the site of a train derailment west in rural Dundy County.

 

There was praise for the Amtrak crew, as well.

Even as he worked to find alternate travel means to his Long Island, N.Y., home as Hurricane Irene was bearing down, Gary Caparelli took time to praise Amtrak and those assisting after the accident.

“The engineer did a great job stopping the train,” said Caparelli who was in the dining car at the time the train hit the crane. His son, Julien, 17, was in a sleeping car toward the back of the train.

“It was quite sudden,” Caparelli said, but still a series of jolts and stopping, not a hard, slamming impact. “It was a controlled slow-down. I don’t know how he maintained his composure.”

The train continued another fifth of a mile before coming to a stop, Caparelli estimated.

“You know what?” said Caparelli as he reviewed the morning’s events, “today’s my 60th birthday. It’ll be a memorable one.”

Gary Caparelli speaks with reporters, including Connie Jo Discoe of the McCook Daily Gazette, outside the Dundy County Stratton High School in Benkelman where he and other Amtrak passengers awaited alternate transportation after they train derailed west of Benkelman.

 

Caparelli and his 17-year-old son Julien, had boarded the eastbound Amtrak Wednesday in San Francisco, bound for their home in Lawrence, N.Y.

Just outside Reno, Nev., Thursday morning, the train hit an SUV stranded on the tracks. “It might be an Amtrak first,” Caparelli joked. “Two hits on the same train.”

Caparelli said passengers were told the driver of the SUV had tried to cross the track between cross gradings, and the vehicle became high-centered.

“It was teetering on the first track. There was nobody in it,” Caparelli said, when the train came around a corner. Caparelli said passengers saw “an orange flame explosion and smelled burning rubber.”

There was no derailment, but the SUV was cut in half, he said. That accident caused a delay of approximately two hours. Ironically, that delay may have played a role in Friday’s accident, as the Amtrak train is typically long past the Doane elevator at the time when the crane was extended across the tracks.

According to the Dundy County Sheriff’s Office the incident remains under investigation. The quarter-mile section of track torn up in the derailment was repaired by Saturday and the line of railway back in use.

Of those transported by ambulance, 12 were taken to the Dundy County Hospital in Benkelman; five were taken to the Chase County Community Hospital in Imperial, and four were taken to the Wray Community District Hospital in Wray, Colo.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 September 2011 20:32