HELENA – Severe cold, some poor decisions and a lack of management are what investigators believe led to a train running uncontrolled towards Helena on Feb. 2, 1989, resulting in a large explosion.
Following the crash and explosion, authorities interviewed countless witnesses, crew members and emergency personnel to piece together what happened. The final report and recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board paint a detailed picture of the events of that day.
The train, Montana Rail Link train 121, originally departed from Laurel, Mont. destined for Spokane.
The morning of the crash was bitter cold – much colder than when engineers and operators of the train left their home base of Missoula two days earlier. To counteract the days brutal temperatures, the crews on board had cranked up the heat in the lead helper unit. But, the system became overloaded and shutdown not long after passing through Helena. The lead train cabin quickly became even colder, and the windows fogged up so much crews couldn’t see outside.
The decisions made after that power failure are what set the stage for disaster. Crews decided to make a stop near Austin about 11 miles outside Helena. They planned to rearrange the front of the train and put a helper unit with working heat up front. The crew was switching the order of the lead units when they got an indication the train cars were missing. It was pitch black at the time, and they turned on some train lights hoping to see the dozens of train cars, but all they saw was darkness.
Around 50 train cars rolled down the mountain, picked up speed and eventually careened down the tracks towards Helena, aided by the slope of the mountain. The train crews scrambled to follow the cars in their locomotive.
The runaway cargo is said to have covered 11 miles in around 12 to 13 minutes. It did eventually stop, only after crashing into three helper units stationed at the Benton Avenue crossing.
Minutes later, an explosion rocked Helena. Three cars on the runaway train had contained flammable materials.
“In this case, the explosion was caused by an isopropyl alcohol tank car catching on fire after the run away train ran into a couple of helper engines at the crossing,” Paul Spengler, former Lewis and Clark County DES coordinator, said.
The hydrogen peroxide had a 70 percent concentration. Anything above 52 percent is considered greatly hazardous.
“The hydrogen peroxide tank car exploded with such a force that Mike Stickney, the state seismologist told me it was picked up on his Richter scale in Butte at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, which is designed to pick up earthquake activity. But it was such an enormous above ground explosion, it was picked up on his seismometer,” Spengler said.
Only later did the NTSB uncover what happened that allowed the train cars to collide.
The report said, “The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the crews of train 1-121-28 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. Contributing to the accident was the decision of the engineer of helper 2 to rearrange the locomotive consist and leave the train unattended on the mountain grade, and the effects of the extreme cold weather on the air brake system of the train and the crewmembers.”
The report also found the accident could have been avoided if certain steps been taken.
“ The Safety Board believes that had a discussion taken place prior to rearranging the locomotive the accident may have been avoided.”
The report said the crews could have rotated engineers in the unheated cab or moving only one of the road units to the head end of the train. Crews also could have discussed what might happen by leaving the traub standing on a mountain grade and the effect of cold weather on crew members having to set hand brakes.
Montana Rail Link declined to be interviewed for this story. In an emailed response, the company did not directly address the events that occurred in 1989.
“MRL exceeds industry standards in safety initiatives in many areas… and has experienced an 86% reduction in accidents since 1997. The safety of our employees, customers and the public is our number one priority,” the statement said.