Derailment of CN Train #355
I first heard about this from an e-mail Matt Furze sent me. The story and pictures came ultimately from an unnamed CN employee. A week later I was at the Arizona Railway Museum for some car switching and was talking to Don McCardle who knew about the derailment and sent me the rest of the story which I believe was printed in The Vancouver Sun newspaper.
From the e-mail.
Some photos sent to me about a Canadian RR accident that ‘mother nature’ created.
The rest of the story.
Resting in the comfort of his Kamloops home Thursday night, CN engineer Earl McGrail recalled the horror earlier in the day when his locomotive struck a massive rock slide and plunged nearly 60 metres into the canyon of the Thompson River near Lytton. "Your worst nightmare," the 49-year-old told The Vancouver Sun, trying to find words to describe his ordeal. "It's a ride from hell."
McGrail, who was the engineer on train 355 with conductor Hans Nederpel, said he knows every part of the track from Jasper to Vancouver and that it was immediately clear something was wrong when he saw a rock pile on the tracks ahead. "You memorize every curve and it's like, 'wait a second, this doesn't exist,'" the 29-year railway veteran said, recalling his initial reaction to the massive pile of debris. "It was huge," he said of the pile on the tracks about 1.5 kilometres east of Lytton, at the western end of what is known locally as White Canyon. "It was a monster slide."
At about 1:05 AM -- close to an hour after an earlier train had safely cleared the same tracks -- McGrail's west bound freight train hit the debris pile and careened towards the canyon.
McGrail said engine 2687 -- the first of two locomotives on the 105-car train, and the one he and Nederpel were in -- went off the rails and almost stopped, before going over the cliff. "We hit the slide and we just about stopped and then we teetered over the edge," he said. All he could think about was that he wasn't ready to die. "I'm not ready. Point blank, I'm not ready," he recalled thinking. "I'll do whatever I can to get out of this and to help my fellow worker," he added.
The ride to the bottom was so fast he could not recall details but he said they were both being tossed around the cab. McGrail said one of the first things he did before the engine went over was to cut the main power switch in case the engine landed in the river. "The main generator pumps out enough electricity for a small city," he said. "If we hit the water and that's activated we're done."
After plunging over the cliff, the engine came to rest on its side about 30 metres from the Thompson, leaving McGrail and Nederpel shaken, but not badly injured. For Nederpel, 56, the terrifying slide seemed to happen in slow motion. "It only took seconds, but it seemed like hours," he said in an interview. He was sitting beside McGrail when they saw the rock slide as the locomotive rounded a curve in the Lasha siding, but it was too late to stop the train. "We saw the rocks on the track and put on the emergency brake but there wasn't enough time. We hit the slide and it pushed us over the side. "We had no idea where we were going, it was pitch dark."
Nederpel pulled himself out of his seat and stood up behind it, bracing himself as the engine slid down the canyon wall. At some point the engine flopped over and the two were thrown against the side of the cab. "It wasn't until we got out that we realized how far we had fallen," he said.
They were still in radio contact with the Kamloops depot and gave them details of the accident. Then they broke a window and scrambled out of the engine, but that was far from the end of their ordeal. They tried to climb but the canyon wall was too steep and muddy. "It was impossible for us to get out." Nederpel said. When they heard rocks crashing down and hitting the engine they were concerned another slide would occur, and when they saw the second engine hanging above them on the lip of the canyon they decided to walk downstream, away from the wreck, in case more of the train came down.
Meanwhile, back on the canyon lip, police, firefighters and paramedics had responded to the crash within about 20 minutes, but quickly realized they had no way to safely mount a rescue on their own. McGrail and Nederpel would have to wait by the river until a specialized rescue team could arrive.
Food, hot drinks and blankets were send down to them in a carrier lowered by rope and they set up camp less than a kilometre west of the wreck. "It wasn't that cold, we had jackets and blankets, in fact we felt pretty good," Nederpel said. "We both realized how lucky we were and that kept us pretty happy during the night."
For Nederpel, a CN conductor for 30 years, it was his first derailment.
Of his night under the stars McGrail said: "We hunkered down, we were there for a few hours -- it was good. It was interesting, a lot of meteorites," he said, pointing out how much more he appreciated life after coming so close to death. McGrail added his gratitude for the rescuers, and those at CN who were there to help when he needed it most. "I can't thank the management from CN enough," he said. "They were there the whole time.... They did everything right."
While McGrail and Nederpel were huddling over a thermos of hot chocolate at the bottom of canyon, Kent Harrison Search and Rescue team president Nick Morley was getting a call at his home in Agassiz, asking him to assemble a team and help with the rescue. Three hours after hearing about the derailment at about 6 AM, Morley was on the scene with four other search and rescue specialists, rigging ropes and starting his descent down the bank to McGrail and Nederpel. "It was pretty steep," Morley said in an interview.
He said that when he reached McGrail and Nederpel they were in good spirits, but extremely eager to leave. "They were pretty anxious to get out," he said. "They were tired and cold. They just wanted to get home." Morley said he gave the two men harnesses and helmets and that by about 8 AM they were both out of the canyon and being treated by ambulance attendants at the top of the embankment.
They were taken to hospital and released within hours with only minor injuries to return to their families in Kamloops.
Meanwhile, CN crews worked to assess the damage and deal with the diesel fuel and other fluids leaking from the locomotive. "There was a hairline crack in one of the fuel tanks and we're estimating a loss of about 600 litres of diesel, which is contained in the immediate area," CN spokesman Jim Feeny said Thursday afternoon. Feeny said there also was a leak from a hydraulic fluid line, and that about 400 litres of fluid had spilled, with some possibly going into the Thompson River. "Some of the hydraulic [fluid] may have made it into the river but it is a very light product and will stay on top until it is broken up," he said. Feeny said cleanup crews were on the scene Thursday but that it was too early to determine when everything would be cleared.
Back in Kamloops, McGrail said Thursday night he is thankful to be alive and eager to get back to work. "We made it. That's the best part of the story right there," he said. "The best part is we both walked out and we didn't lose any limbs."