Custom Search

Vancouver Magazine Image
About this Story

The Story we present on this page of Carknocker.Com, was sent to us by Ed koski, and it is a great read. It was published, and printed in the Vancouver Magazine in the October 1981 Issue and the Author was, Daniel Wood, a writer for Vancouver Magazine. It is being republished here, with permission from Todd parker of Vancouver magazine. All credit for this exciting story goes to Daniel Wood, whom, I am sure you will all agree, wrote a very good, and very exciting story. We at Carknocker.Com hope you readers enjoy it as much as we did. Please feel free to share this web site and its stories with your friends.

The transcript, to the best of our knowledge, is a factual account of all circumstances, and the thoughts and emotions of a train crew on board of a 15000 ton runaway coal train on the famed Mountain Subdivision , Canadian Pacific Railway through Rogers Pass British Columbia Canada in 1977. I have included to photos of the wreck, at the bottom of the page.

A Special Thanks to      
Vancouver Magazine      
Vancouver Magazine    

Jump Home to Carknocker.Com

 Canadian pacific locomotiveCanadian pacific locomotiveCanadian pacific locomotive"THEIR CABOOSE LURCHED FROM SIDE TO SIDE,--THE LAST CAR IN A MILE AND A QUARTER WHIP---THEY PULLED ON THEIR COATS AND---DECIDED TO JUMP"Canadian pacific locomotive 

RUNAWAY AT FLAT CREEK

By Daniel Wood, October 1981

Almost a mile and a quarter behind the lead engine, tail end Brakeman Jimmy Gullickson, and Conductor Bill Belton sat in twin chairs in the cabooses cupola, looking out into the blackness. The snow muffled the sounds from the slow moving freight, as it passed. Belton with 20 years experience on the CPR knew the old maxim railroaders were fond of repeating about their employer: "Uphill slow, downhill fast:tonnage first safety last." The train they were about to take down the snow-covered rails toward Revelstoke was just one of 464 heavy tonnage coal trains to move through Rogers pass that year. The extra 5820 West weighed 15,292 tons, or over 30,000,000 pounds. Belton saw the needle jump slightly on the brake pressure gauge indicating that Thacker had released the brake on the lead engine. With a slight jerk, the Caboose began rolling. For a few moments, it all felt familiar and routine.

According to the CPR manual, no section of rail in Canada requires more caution, and lower speeds than the section in front of the extra 5820. Considering the number of sharp curves and the 2.3 percent maximum gradient, speeds over the next eight miles should never, the handbook stipulates, exceed 20 mph. In heavy snow, with a heavy train, and the possibilty of icing on both the tracks, and the brake shoes, even lower speeds would have been advised. The potential for disaster on " THE HILL" as trainmen call that particular slope, is well known. Close to 300 people, most of them CPR employees have died in that region since the track was put through in 1885.

The cab of a railway engine is a cramped place, painted that ubiquitous landlord green and the size of an average apartment's bathroom. The steady rumble of those thousands of horsepower from the diesel engines, and the intermittent hisses from released air pressure out of the brakes, combine with the distinct odor of exhaust, to urge anyone other than a railway buff to leave the space quickly. Thacker was such a buff. His father, and his father's father had been railway men, and Thacker could recall as a boy in Winnipeg looking up at a big steam locomotive hoping someday he could drive one. Now he had gotten the chance.

Just five weeks before, after 17 years as a Trainmen, and Conductor with the CPR he had begun the course leading toward certification as a railway engineer. Under Hamms supervision, he had already taken four loaded coal trains down the HILL. It takes very little time for 15,000 odd tons of train to get rolling when it is already poised on a downhill slope. With the brakes released, momentum soon took over. The CPR manual requires a quick application of the brakes at 10 mph just below Glacier, to prevent the possibility of any runaways. But as railway men in the Mountain Subdivision know, one can get a bit of a jump on the long haul downhill by letting the train coast for a bit, pushed by the enormous weight behind. This is what Thacker did. Thirty seconds passed. When the digital speedometer just to the left of the enginmans front window showed 15 mph, Thacker hit the button on his console, activating the brakes. With a loud hiss, 15 pounds of air pressure jetted into the cabin. He expected to feel the train slowing as the brake shoes clamped down on the trains wheels. The trains speed increased. Hamm, leaning over the top of the chest high console, looked down on Thacker. "Hit it again," he said. "It", was the brake button. Thacker hit it again and a second burst of pressurized air hissed into the cab. Still the trains speed increased.

Tirrell, his face pressed against the cabs left window, watched with mounting concerns as the train continued to surge ahead. The snow, from his perspective, had begun to move horizontally. But he expected the train to slow on a flattish spot a mile and a half below glacier. Instead, it passed through there, gaining speed every second. Then raced on to the next steep slope just beyond. The speedometer showed 35 mph.
Something is wrong, Tirrell told himself, but he said nothing.

In the Caboose, Belton and Gullickson had made the same observation, Gullickson got on the radio phone. "Have you got a hold of her?", he asked Thacker.
"We're working on it", came Thackers voice in reply.

It seemed an odd time to be working on it, Belton thought. But in two decades with the CPR he'd been in a lot worse situations, including four minor wrecks.

Up in the lead engine, nothing was working right. Thacker had already used enough brake pressure to bring the train to a complete halt under normal circumstances, and yet, with each passing second, a new, higher number came up on the speedometer. The train lurched heavily at the curves, leaning as though it were about to tip. Again Thacker and Hamm exchanged glances.

Gullicksons voice came over the speaker again "How you making out CW?" Clarence William Thacker wasnt sure. Hamm grabbed the radio phone, "We have got everything in it but the kitchen sink," he said.

In the Caboose, Belton, the Conductor, heard that, and took the radio phone from Gullickson "Are you going to hit it?" In railway jargon, that means hit the emergency brake.
"We just did."
"You what?"
"We just did!"

Belton could not believe his ears. That meant that the Engineer had applied full braking power--everything!,--and yet the train had not slowed by a fraction. Belton looked at Gullickson. They jumped down from the raised cupola into the Cabooses main aisle. Their empty coffee mugs slid across the table. The kettle rattled on the stove. The Caboose lurched from side to side, the last car in a mile and a quarter whip. They had become helpless passengers in every Trainmans nightmare--a runaway in the Rockies. They pulled on their coats and decided to jump. Belton yanked open the Cabooses front door. A blast of snow and minus 5 degrees Celsius cold hit him in the face. He looked down and noticed to his horror that, in the panic of the moment, he had forgotten to put his boots on. He was about to jump into four feet of snow in sub zero temperatures in his socks. He scrambled back inside and hurriedly did up his boots. Gullickson, almost twenty years Beltons junior, watched in growing terror as the train speed continued to increase. Things crashed around inside the Caboose as the train snapped through the curves. Belton, now fully dressed for the weather, opened the cabooses door a second time and peered out. The train was going too fast to jump.

Up in the front, too, something close to panic reigned. Thacker, having pushed the emergency brake button, shouted to Hamm. "Timmy, you can have her, Im getting the hell off!" "Don't jump. Don't jump. You will never make it," the Engineer said, as he slid into his seat at the engineers console. Tirrell watched as Thacker pulled on his winter coat. "What are you going to do?", he asked.
"Jump."
"Jump? How fast are we going?"
Thacker glanced over at the speedometer. It seemed incredible. "60," he said. They were travelling three times the maximum speed allowed for those tracks. "Oh God!" Tirrell groaned.
"You coming?"
"I guess."

Tirrell began pulling on his coat. Thacker, with Tirrell close behind, pulled open the cabs door. Snow swirled into their eyes. Everything in the darkness blurred together--snow banks, rocks, cliffs, trees. A jump timed right might land them in a snowdrift. Timed wrong, and they would splatter against a cliff. "Don't jump!", Hamm called again. They slammed the door shut behind them, deciding in the face of possible instant death to ride it out. The train just couldnt go any faster.
The train went faster.

Back inside, Thacker saw the signal lights at the Flat Creek siding, 7 miles west of Glacier, and what they said frightened him even more than anything previously. The signal informed him that the extra east bound, a heavy freight, lay somewhere in the blizzard directly ahead.

Thacker grabbed the radio phone and in a second had the engineer of the extra east bound on the line. Because of the static, though, his voice was hard to hear. "Where are you, Bill?", he asked. "We're at the Mile Board.". Thacker didn't have to think for very long. To the Engineer to the eastbound he shouted, "Get the hell out of the way! We're on a runaway.", And to Hamm, Thacker said, "Jesus Christ, Timmy, A head-on!". By Thackers calculation, the extra eastbound lay less than two miles ahead, although in fact it turned out to be rather more. In any event, the crew figured they had less than two minutes to live. Again Thacker decided to jump, but just then a tremendous surge struck the train from the rear as though something had given it an unkind extra push. Thacker fought to remain in his seat. From the Caboose, the crew in the front engine heard Belton say, "We've pulled the pin. We've cut the caboose off."

Gullickson had managed, at those high speeds, to clamber out and beneath the caboose, and turn a lever to separate his car from the rest of the train. He saw the last of the coal cars disappear into the darkness and snow. Belton figured for sure his friends in the engine were about to die. But it was not a thought he had time to dwell on. He and Gullickson were themselves on a runaway Caboose now, rushing through the night with rocky ledges on one side, and the gorge of the Illecillewaet River on the other -- without headlights, and without anything other than the two manual brakes located outdoors at each end of the Caboose. If the coal train were to somehow stop ahead of them, and if they were unable to apply the manual brakes, they would almost certainly die rear ending the very train they had so happily just left.

Gullickson took the front brake and Belton the back. Each brake handle has the appearance of an automobile steering wheel, and operates by simple rotation, clockwise to clamp down the brake shoes beneath the car. Both men wound the handles up to maximum tightness until their arms ached, and their teeth grated. The caboose wouldn't stop. They dashed back inside. Each secretly suspected the other of failing to apply the brakes fully. "You tighten it hard?", "Did you?", "Did you?". The moment contained a keystone cops quality, but neither of them could have appreciated it then. They pushed past each other, exchanging places at the two brake handles to check each others efforts. Propelled by adrenaline, both managed to squeeze an extra inch of turn onto the wheels, but still the caboose slid onward. Again they exchanged places. And again. And as they rushed in ever mounting panic back and forth along the cabooses aisle between the two brake handles, they could hear Hamm on the radio phone announcing like a sportscaster the steady increases in the speed of the train itself. "Sixty-five.", "Seventy.", "Seventy-five.", "Eighty." Each time, Hamms voice incredulously and doomed. "Where are you now, CW?" Gullickson called into the phone. In reply, Thackers voice answered, "Below Flat Creek. I think we've had the biscuit." "Hold on. You'll make it", Gullickson said lamely. It was something he didn't really believe. The three men in the engine were preparing to die.

Thacker, transfixed by the thought of a head on with the freight, stared out of the engines front window as the train swept again and again through blind curves, each moment expecting to see the headlights of the approaching train. If they hit, he knew that death would be instantaneous. But if they were to derail in a snow shed or down into the river, he imagined himself lying in the wreckage, legless or with his head half smashed. He dreaded that, wanting it to be clean and quick. Thacker thought of his wife, Sylvia, and his four kids. He badly wanted to tell them that he loved them, but mostly he thought of dying. Why me? Why me? He kept asking himself. He wanted to go back to the decision he had made earlier that day to take the shift, and unmake it. He could have been down in town watching the Revelstoke Bruins playing hockey. Hamm, too, stared ahead. He had done everything, and nothing had worked. He had lost control of the extra 5820, the first train to ever get away from him. Tirrell clung to the underside of the Firemans seat, wishing that Gullickson, the other trains Brakemen, had not refused his suggestion to swap positions on the train that night. From beneath the train came no sound of braking. No one spoke. Even the engines had shut down automatically when the train exceeded its maximum safe speed. The blizzard muffled everything. The windshield wipers moved ineffectually against the snow which now swirled around the cab like something--to Tirrells eyes-- out of a bad acid trip. On the glass he saw his face reflected, and it was the face of death. Like a juggernaut, they plowed on through the night amid an eerie silence. They were helpless. With each curve they expected that this time, no this time, no THIS time the train would derail. It just went faster.

Down in Revelstoke, Kathy Steed, the railway dispatcher, sat in the centralized traffic control room before a large, illuminated panel that displayed electrically the position and movement of every train on The Hill. She watched in astonishment as the extra 5820 activated light bulb after light bulb on the Big Board until they were blinking on and off like Christmas tree ornaments. The lights indicating the movement of the extra 5820 raced towards the left; the lights indicating the extra eastbound freight crept slowly right. She could see the head on coming. She got on the phone to the eastbound. "The 5820's on a runaway.", "I know, Can you get me into an empty siding?" "Can you make it to Illecillewaet"? "How fast are they coming down?" "Fast." "How fast?" "Very fast." "I don't have much choice, do I?" "Nope." The engineer of the extra eastbound was in a terrible situation. In order to get out of the way of the runaway, you would have to go forwards, towards it, to reach the safety of the siding at Illecillewaet. Thacker braced himself. Any second now, they would hit the oncoming freight. Any second now they would derail. Again he considered jumping. In his mind he began to calculate the route that lay immediately ahead. He might make it going into the snow on the double curve above the Illecillewaet River a half a mile ahead. If not there, no where, for after that the tracks entered the triple curving Illecillewaet tunnel, and no train going their speed could possibly make it through there. But, he told himself, no train had ever runaway like this before. His mind lodged on the effects of a wreck in a tunnel. It would be awful. They would go sidewards in there. They would jam up. It would be like a gigantic compacter as the 106 coal cars rammed into the leading engines, reducing them to a steal pulp. They would never make it alive. At 85 mph, Thacker opened the cab side window, and prepared to jump. Just then the train derailed. Behind the third engine, a solid steal bar the diameter of a telephone pole snapped as the train entered a sharp curve on a bridge. The fourth engine suddenly broke free from the leading engines, tipped sidewards and then tumbled upside down through the ice on the Illecillewaet River twenty feet below. It drew the first attached coal car after it. Then, car after car began jackknifing back through the train as momentum hurled each unit into the one preceding it. Four robot engines, located in the middle of the train, collided with each other, and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel began to ignite. The rear section of the train continued to accordion, demolishing a second steal bridge and dumping more cars into the river. And still the cars pounded together, ripping up rails and knocking down telephone lines. In all 78 coal cars and 5 engines lay crumpled, and burning along the track. Somehow, the train had made it through 24 curves and 8 miles of the steepest track in Canada before derailing. Railroad men say that 10 cars derail for every 10 mph of speed. The extra 5820 was going 85 mph when it derailed. Amid sparks and smoke, and the grinding of brake shoes, the 36 wheels beneath the 3 surviving, lead engines began to slow. Free of the close to fifteen thousand tons of coal cars that had, in effect, been pushing the runaway downhill, the engines came to a halt. Amazingly, they had not derailed. Looking back, Thacker saw explosions lighting up the entire valley as though someone were taking flash pictures of the disaster. For a few seconds, the three front-end men waited, half expecting to feel the slam of an errant coal car into the rear of their engines but nothing happened. They had survived. Belton and Gullickson, too, had managed to cheat death. After two miles of skidding in the pitch dark, their frantic efforts at the brake handles had paid off. The cabooses powerful momentum had been overcome, and the car brought to a stop. With rubbery legs, they both jumped down into the snow happy to feel solid ground beneath their feet.

While Hamm shut down the lead engines and called for help on the radio, Thacker and Tirrell walked back along the engines catwalks to where the train had broken apart. Flames from the wreck filled the air, casting macabre shadows. Thacker jumped down beside the rails. "Thank Christ!" he muttered to himself. When no one was looking, he turned his head towards a snow bank and threw up.     ...End of Daniels Story.




In terms of damage, it was the worst wreck in Canadian Railroad history. Among friends, Thacker is called the six million dollar man. That is how much it took to replace, and repair, the destruction he inadvertently set loose. Ten days later, the line had been cleared, although the force of the impact had reduced most of the derailed cars to twisted parodies.

WHAT WENT WRONG ?

IN A REPORT on the wreck, issued by the Canadian Transport Commission in January 1980, the blame for the disaster was placed on Hamm, Belton, and Thacker. It is a view that the trainmen vehemently protest. The CTC found that by delaying the initial braking below Glacier until the train had reached the speed of 15 MPH, Thacker had, quite unsuspectingly, precipitated the chain of events that led to the derailment. He should have begun slowing the train once it had reached 10 MPH. Unaware of this miscalculation, the report continues, Thacker and then Hamm began releasing excessive amounts of brake pressure until there was not enough left to counter the downhill momentum of the train. Belton too comes in for blame since, by the CTC's estimation, his action in ordering Gullickson to cut the Caboose free may have resulted in an accidental further depletion of brake pressure at precisely the time the front- end crew were fighting for the trains control. Perhaps these are reasons why the CPR recently announced plans to drill a new, 14.5 km double tracked tunnel beneath Rogers Pass.

The Runaway Crew all worked through to retirement. There have been no more runaways, on this section of track, but the Trainmen point to the runaway on the Fording River Line, in which one of the CPR-s most Senior Engineers, lost his train under identical circumstances in 1980.

© Copyright

Below are some old photos of the Wreckage at Flat Creek
Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Canadian pacific Carmen see here burning with torches among the twisted wreckage, the one in the yellow hat, is Ed Koski

The above picture is where the 5820 exited the snowshed at the derailment site. You just about have to have been a Carman who has worked wrecks to appreciate this photo. If you think being a Carman isnt dangerous,--Think again. The carmen you see in this photo are working in absolute dangerous conditions. They are crawling among all the wrecked masses of scrap iron with cutting torches, burning stuff like brake roads and lord knows what all, in order for the dozers to be able to pull the stuff out of the pile. I know from personal experiance the danger involved. You just never know when a section of track that has been bent under tension, pops loose like a giant coiled spring and brings you career, and life to an immediate halt, or when some off balance cars slide down on top of you. That doesnt even take into account these men are crawling around in snow, and ice, mixed with a good amount of coal. Being a Carman definately has its bad side. But you got to do what it takes to get the job done. The main objective from the railroads standpoint right at this moment is just to clear all the mess out of the way so the track can be rebuilt, and they can start moving freight. A railroad that aint moving freight is loosing money. It should be noted that the one you see right in the thick of it, wearing a yellow hat, is our own Ed Koski




Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Wreckage at flat Creek

Here we see a pile of wreckage mostly covered in snow. The snow just about covers the trucks sitting in the foreground. For the novice, a set of trucks, is what they call the section of two pairs of wheels, and bolsters.



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Cars in the river.

Walter, The above picture, is where the trailing lead locomotive is laying, to the right, ( this is unreal ) the lead coal car, with its load intact ! came up on the highway, and passed a National Parks highway speed plow truck, in the dark, with a fellow, I was sharing a house with in Revelstoke, his name is Reg Gurley, he watched in total astonishment, as this coal car came up the bank, passed him and went back down to the river !!!! at 4 AM total darkness, Reg said " after the rail car passed me, my windsheild wipers were instantly wiping black muck, I had to stop ! I called my dispatcher and reported what I just seen happen, he asked me when I had last had sleep ! " UNREAL !!! Ed



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Lead Locomotive with one end torn off

This was the lead remote locomotive, approximately 200 yds west of the bridge, end was torn off in the derailment.



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Remote car on top of a bridge, on top of more locomotives

Approximately 100 yds west of the snow shed is a short bridge, on top is a Robot Car initially used to recieve data from lead locomotives , below are three locomotives and the bridge !



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Wreckage at flat Creek

Special sale today on slightly used Railcar Wheels. Use at your own risk. I will bet the scrap iron companies had a field day here.



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Wreckage at flat Creek

What can be said about this scene. it apears to be the remains of what, was once a Canadian Pacific Locomotive. Unless my eyes deceive me its in the water.



Click Picture to enlarge, then click again
Wreckage at flat Creek

                                                    Does anyone want to buy some scrap iron?



Click the Drop Down Menu for
More Story Pages, and other Carknocker pages
  




Feel Free to Email Me,   THANKS FOR YOUR VISIT

Carknocker.com and everything on it, unless otherwise noted: © Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, by Walter Parks, "Carknocker" and Retired Railway Carman.