It was about 4:30 a.m. Feb. 2, 1989. The temperature had plummeted to minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit — with an estimated wind chill of minus 70.
A crash and two explosions ripped through the night, and the violent tremor shook people from their sleep.
The city went dark, except for a towering yellow flame shooting into the sky.
Some thought it was a nuclear bomb.
Others, an earthquake.
Many thought the extreme cold caused an electric substation to blow up.
Few thought runaway train.
It would go down as one of the worst disasters in Helena’s history and one of the worst train wrecks in Montana’s.
For Mike McNellis, it was the night he almost lost his life. He jumped out of the path of the 49-car runaway train as it charged down the tracks from Mullan Pass and piled into the helper train he’d been sitting in just moments before.
For the slumbering Carroll College students, it was likely the biggest wake-up call of their lives.
For the fire department, it was their biggest day in modern history.
Some 3,500 people were evacuated, the electricity and heat went out in much of the city, and more than $10 million in damages were reported.
Yet — people would marvel at how lucky they were that no one was killed or seriously injured.
Windows exploded across the Carroll College campus and throughout the downtown.
Hundreds or perhaps thousands of wickedly sharp shrapnel pieces shot across the campus, tearing through building roofs and windows and bombarding the Physical Education Building.
All the north windows in Guadalupe Hall shattered.
A train axel sailed over St. Charles Hall and tore through the roof of a house on what was then Ralph Street. It landed in the living room — just barely missing 79-year old Catherine DeBree, asleep in her bedroom.
Photos published in the Independent Record showed a campus that looked like a war zone.
“The wreck is something I’ll never forget,” said McNellis, who was a switchman at the time.
He and the engineer came on duty at 3:15 a.m. and were waiting in their helper train near Benton Avenue crossing to head up to Blossburg, but mechanical problems from the extreme cold delayed their departure.
McNellis had just left the train and was walking down the tracks to throw a switch by hand when he heard the boom of the runaway box cars crashing into the helper locomotives.
The locomotives buckled and “a locomotive shot toward me; I just jumped off the track … the handrail brushed my coveralls. I was running toward Batch Fields, and the cars are derailing behind me.
“The train was doing 35 to 45 miles per hour when it hit,” he said.
Fifteen cars derailed.
Suddenly, “it was pitch black,” McNellis said. “It was cold — it was 72 below with the wind chill.”
He and the engineer waited for a crew van from the railroad station to come pick them up. Just as it arrived, a tank car 200 feet away from him blew up, throwing him in the air.
“I landed in the middle of Benton Avenue,” he said. The second explosion, which he thinks was a nearby transformer station, blew him further, and he rolled into the Benton Avenue ditch.
“I could hear chunks of that tank car just going boom, boom,” as he hoped none of it would hit him, he said.
The first explosion mushroomed out blue and white and orange, he recalled. “My ears were ringing — I couldn’t hardly hear. I could smell a sulfuric acid type of smell. It smelled like rotten eggs.
“It’s like it happened last week,” he said of his brush with death. “It changed my life. It’s affected my hearing,” which was permanently damaged. He’s been told it will get worse as he gets older.
Roy Swanby, who is now a battalion chief with the Helena Fire Department, was rocked out of bed by the explosion, he said.
“I live down close to Custer Avenue on Villard, and it was enough to rock the house and wake me up.”
He struggled to get his car started and headed to the fire station: “The town was pitch black. There were no street lights, no traffic lights, no business lights. It was pretty ominous as I drove up… I could see fire … by that time, there were open flames.”
At the downtown fire station in the Civic Center, electricity and the back-up generator had been knocked out.
Firemen had to wrestle open the station door manually by pulling on a chain to raise it.
“The weird thing about the whole thing — the delay — it kept us from being at ground zero when it blew up,” he said. “Otherwise, we would have been at that crossing.”
At the scene, it was dark except for towering yellow flames leaping 20 to 30 feet in the air, he recalled.
They didn’t know what cargo was on the train — if it was toxic chemicals and if more explosions would follow.
“We weren’t truly trained up to the level we are today,” he said. They knew little about handling hazardous materials at the time. “There were a lot of odors we weren’t familiar with. We didn’t have a clue … for eight to 10 hours, of what exactly was on that train.
“We had a tank of pure hydrogen peroxide that ruptured. We were looking at it leaking onto the railroad,” forming a creek running down the tracks. As it touched the railroad ties, it ignited them.
“There was some really pungent alcohol smell,” he recalled.
The hazardous material proved to be three tank cars containing hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol and acetone.
The extreme cold proved a blessing.
“We had a big guardian angel watching over,” he said. “If the temperature had been above freezing, it would have been a much larger kaboom. The potential was there for something greater to happen. It could have been 100 times worse.”
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It was also the day Swanby and a buddy almost became living ice sculptures.
As they were hosing down the cars, a mist of water coated them. “We were pretty much frozen in place,” he said. “The wet clothes became like a suit of armor.” Other firefighters “had to chip the ice away from our feet. They laid us in the back of the pickup truck and drove us to the fire station to thaw.
“It was the busiest day in the fire department’s history,” he said. There were structure fires all over town, evacuations and emergency shelters to set up. The department hadn’t dealt with anything like it since the 1935 earthquake.
“It was a long three days,” he said of how long it took to put out the fire and transfer the chemicals. “The whole time, it was bitterly cold.”
The subzero cold proved a blessing on the campus.
“It’s amazing no one was hurt,” said Ed Noonan, who was who was resident director of St. Charles and Borromeo halls and living on the third floor of St. Charles Hall.
Because of the early morning hour, students were in bed instead of on campus heading to classes. And it was too early for rush hour traffic and school buses on Benton Avenue.
Because temperatures had plummeted in 24 hours from about 45 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 27 degrees, the girls in Guadalupe Hall dormitory had pushed their beds away from the windows, said Noonan.
They’d also tucked in their curtains to keep out the cold, and these caught the exploding glass shards — preventing serious injuries.
But when the blast hit and the windows shattered, the dark was filled with screams as terrified residents tried to figure out what was happening.
Noonan, who was shaken from his bed in the dark, immediately thought it was an earthquake. “I had one leg in my pants, and I was looking out the east window facing the old transformer (switching) station of Montana Power, and it exploded.
“Right away there were emergency personnel on campus,” he recalled. “They were concerned about toxic fumes. There was really heavy black smoke” towering above the crash site.
Students and staff were directed to O’Connell Hall, where buses picked them up, taking them to emergency shelters — primarily the National Guard Armory, which happened to have its own generators for heat.
Most grabbed their heaviest winter coats. A few took their six packs. One proudly told a news reporter of saving a case of beer and his package of Hostess Ding Dongs.
News photos and footage show the students tucked in blankets, sitting on floors along the shelter wall laughing and singing.
Since this was in the days before cellphones, students stood in a long line to call home, reassuring frantic parents that all was well.
Soon community members showed up at the shelters and took students home with them.
“By noon, all the students were gone,” said Noonan. “It’s one of those bits of knowledge of what kind of community Helena is.
“Instead of a tragedy, it became an adventure,” he said.
And, it appears, from comments in the campus newspaper, The Prospector, that students were delighted to have classes canceled, and not expected to resume before Feb. 12, 1989.
Following an extensive investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report Feb. 12, 1990. It noted a combination of factors including the extreme weather, equipment failures and human error.
In the early morning hours, Montana Rail Link Train 121 had stopped on a mountain grade at Austin near Mullan Pass to switch around helper engines because the lead unit had lost heat.
To make the switch, the crew uncoupled the locomotives from the freight cars, leaving them parked unattended on a 2.2 percent mountain grade.
The temperature in Austin at the time, according to the National Weather Service, was 36 degrees below zero, and 10 inches of snow was on the ground.
The probable cause of the accident, said NTSB, was the failure of the crew of Train 121 “to properly secure their train by placing the train brakes in emergency and applying hand brakes when it was left standing unattended on a mountain grade.”
A contributing factor was the failure of MRL management to adequately assess the qualifications and training of employees placed in train service.
Earlier in the day, train crews had noted leakage from the airbrakes because of the extreme cold, which was not corrected before leaving Helena and heading for the pass.
A few of the other topics addressed were faulty cab heaters, a crew that was improperly dressed to handle a 72 degree drop in temperature within 48 hours, and “inaccurate waybills” about the actual shipment in the box cars and tanker cars.
Also faulted was the Helena Police Department dispatcher for failing to send personnel to the Benton Avenue crossing after receiving two phone calls that a “small accident” had happened there.
Some of the immediate aftermath of the crash and three days of Arctic weather that followed were that water pipes burst all over town, particularly at Carroll College. Plumbers had long waiting lists, according to news reports.
Aquariums across campus froze solid.
Russ Ritter, who was mayor at the time and vice president for Carroll College Relations, said they couldn’t find enough plywood in town to cover all the broken windows across campus and in the city.
To him, the key of what worked was communication.
As soon as he knew what was happening, he was issuing news releases and going on the radio, he said. He also set up a call station to field phone calls from across the country and world — particularly from distressed parents.
Paul Spengler, the Lewis and Clark County coordinator of disaster and emergency services, said the train crash changed its emergency operations.
After it, the county instituted an Incident Command System — so that everyone knew their roles and responsibilities and to whom they reported.
They also fixed radio communication problems. At the time of the crash and fire, Spengler didn’t have any radio communication with first responders at the crash site.
“It’s the biggest disaster I’ve been involved in — in the 34 years on the job,” he said. “It was the biggest disaster since the 1935 earthquake.”
25 years later
As to Montana Rail Link, it made changes, according to an email from its president, Thomas J. Walsh.
It has purchased “state-of-the-art locomotives” and also positioned locomotive power at not only the front of the train but also the rear.
“Information on trains with hazardous material is instantly available to dispatchers and field personnel,” he wrote. And MRL provides “comprehensive training programs” to its staff both in the classroom and on the job regarding operating policies and safe operations in accordance with Federal Railroad Administration regulations, he wrote.
But for many in Helena, like Ed Noonan and a number of the first responders, that day remains as a reason to count one’s blessings.