HELENA – “I was awakened by an explosion,” says former Lewis and Clark County Disaster & Emergency Services Coordinator Paul Spengler.
Current Sheriff Leo Dutton, then an EMT, was also awakened by the blast. “First I checked to see if we had any holes in the wall – then I turned the radio on.”
“I got up and looked out the window and I saw a fireball towards the Carroll College area,” says Helena Police Chief Troy McGee. “And all the power went out in the house. And I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think I’m going to work.’”
First responders, just like many Helena residents, were jolted from their warm beds on that frigid February morning – not knowing what had happened.
Despite the fact that information was hard to come by initially, those responders headed out the door whether they were on shift or not.
Former Helena firefighter J.R. Feucht was not awakened by the blast – just a feeling that something wasn’t right. He got up in the dark to check why the generator had not kicked on and found the scene of the Helena valley an odd sight.
“So I kind of look around and it’s dark throughout the valley, I can’t see anything, anywhere,” says Feucht.
Not long after he was awakened, Spengler’s phone rang. “I received a call from the dispatch center telling me that a train had exploded at the crossing by Carroll College and they believed hazardous materials were aboard.”
That morning is still fresh in the minds of the emergency workers called to respond on February 2, 1989.
Current Helena Police Chief Troy McGee was then a sergeant.
Current Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton was an EMT.
J.R. Feucht and Steve Larson were firefighters.
And Paul Spengler had been the county’s DES coordinator for 10 years at the time. His first order of business that day was opening an emergency operations center to gather and disseminate information.
“I pumped out press releases, this was the old days with the typewriters, “ said Spengler. “I had messengers in the Emergency Operations Center to hand carry them to the radio stations.”
For the others, they discovered their purpose when they arrived on the scene.
Dutton was directing Carroll College students to safety. “At that time, at that moment, I remember them coming across there and looking in my face for hope, looking in my face for is it ok?”
McGee was also trying to help residents. “(We were) just trying to keep people out of the area, trying to ascertain what was in the rail cars, did we need to evacuate? Wake people? What streets did we need to block off?”
The scene was chaotic and complicated by number of factors.
“The main station had no power, had no heat, temperatures dropping in that building, as well as other buildings,” explains Larson. “Also we were starting to receive calls from dispatch from other instances that were starting around the city.”
Much of those other calls were residents concerned about the combination of the frigid cold and lack of power, conditions that only added to what first responders were battling.
“At that temperature our masks were just frozen solid,” said Larson. “The exhalation valves were frozen.”
“I thought I’d dressed for the weather, but it was very difficult to dress for that weather,” adds McGee.
First responders checked to make sure that no residents were harmed. And miraculously, there were no serious injuries.
“Other than minor scrapes and bruises,” says Dutton. “I think that the students were going through, probably if you talked to them now, what would be the mental part. And we didn’t even consider that back then.”
“There was a lot of stuff going on and a lot of moving parts and metal flying over buildings and going through buildings. And nobody got hurt. And nobody got killed. It’s simply amazing,” says Feucht.
Those we interviewed say there is one common theme that stands out in reflecting on that day 30 years ago.
“You get a big emergency like that and the citizens work together, the fire department, police, sheriff’s office,” says McGee. “There’s so many people out there that come together.”
“It could have been extremely dangerous,” adds Dutton. “We just didn’t think about it. We were trained to respond, trained to evaluate – other people, not us.”
“It was amazing how the community came together,” says Spengler. “Which I found in 38 years on my job that is very common. It happens all the time.”