MOYIE SPRINGS — In a time of crisis, the quick actions of first responders is crucial, but the combined teamwork of multiple agencies can make the difference that results in a positive outcome.
When the BNSF train derailed on Wednesday, Jan. 1, plunging the first engine into the Kootenai River, first responders came from all around the county, answering the call for help. In a complex mission, these people, including many volunteer first responders, quickly assumed their roles, utilizing all the hard work they had put into training for a situation like this.
It all began in dispatch.
“I want to stress that between dispatch getting multiple calls, and multiple people responding, they were receiving tons of calls, and they were having to send out tons of information at the same time,” said Boundary County Sheriff’s Detective and Marine Deputy, Caleb Watts. “Multiple dispatchers came in to assist.”
Priority for the teams quickly became the trapped conductor and engineer on the partially submerged engine. The immediate rescue of the BNSF employees became paramount as the stability of the engine was in question.
First to arrive on scene was South Boundary Fire Chief Tony Rohrwasser and BNSF employee, Adam Reeves, who is also a member of the Boundary Search and Dive Rescue Team (BSDRT).
“My initial response was to be a potential liaison between the railroad and first responders,” said Reeves. “I had no plan or intentions to be the first there.”
At the same time, the Sheriff’s boat, Marine 1, was deployed from Bonners Ferry, embarking on a treacherous trip up river. On board was Marine Deputy Watts, along with Boundary County Sheriff’s Corporal Clint Randall, BSDRT Vice Commander Pat Bennett, BSDRT Director Levi Falck, Boundary Ambulance Captain/Paramedic John Minden, some of which are also rescue divers.
Working in a separate area, but as a joint effort, North Bench Fire Chief Gus Jackson and Paradise Valley Fire Chief Mike Glazier were acting jointly as Incident Command and coordinated the activities of the other agencies. Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter was en route to the scene.
Meanwhile, at the train, Reeves shined a spotlight down at the partially submerged window and spotted an arm waving out the window of the engine with a flashlight.
“He waved that around and we saw that,” said Rohrwasser. “Adam took off and I followed him — we went onto the engine that was pointed downhill, and came down to the end of that, and then there was a step across to the other engine.”
They tied a rope there and Reeves proceeded to the first engine.
“I didn’t hear the conversation that he had with them, but at that point they couldn’t get out, for whatever reason, whether the door was stuck or there was pressure from the water,” said Rohrwasser.
Reeves used a sledgehammer to break the glass of the window, finishing the job with his boot.
“He beat on it with a sledge hammer until finally breaking it,” said Rohrwasser. “The guys told him afterwards that it was bulletproof glass — it took him a lot to get through it.”
As Reeves pulled the BNSF employees out and onto the top of the train, Marine 1 was negotiating the Kootenai River in the dark, en route to the scene, utilized all of their resources, including the FLIR Systems thermal camera, spotlights, and their mapping of an already tracked route through the area.
“Being as shallow as it is right now in certain spots, to navigate through those channels at night is very intricate,” said Watts. “We do run that river quite a bit, but we have never done it at night because of the dangerous nature of it.”
Back at the train, two hi-rail trucks arrived with BNSF employees, along with South Boundary Firefighter Michael Powers, and Boundary Ambulance Paramedic Liesl Woomert. Powers brought along water rescue gear, including life jackets and helmets that were then transferred via rope to the conductor and engineer, who were waiting on top of the engine for Two Bear Air to pull them from the train.
While waiting, two first responders were sent down river with throw bags, in case anyone fell into the water, so they would be able to rescue them.
Marine 1, having safely negotiated the river, arrived on scene before Two Bear Air.
“Due to the train not being secured, and not knowing whether or not it was going to shift, or do anything else to put them in more danger — we moved up to the engine with the boat and were able to safely get them off the train and onto the boat,” said Watts. “Then we transported them to Twin Rivers where medical personnel were standing by.”
Every first responder had a role to play within their agency, and every agency had a role to play within the rescue scenario.
“Part of what makes the ability to go into something like that is knowing the people coming behind you to back you up — are competent and confident in what they are doing,” said Reeves about going out onto the train. “The entire emergency response community that we have in Bonners Ferry acted timely and efficiently — it is very much a team thing.”
BSDRT Commander Tony Jeppesen, who was out of town and unable to be on scene, monitored the proceedings and his team on the radio.
“Water emergencies are always very dynamic calls, with lots of unknowns and rapid changing circumstances,” he said. “All responders worked together and accomplished the mission, and we really couldn’t have asked for a better outcome under the circumstances.”
First responders are always training, whether they are paid professionals or volunteers, and practicing scenarios — all for a situation like this.
“I think that due to the training and the voracity of everyone doing their job, and doing it well, there was a positive outcome,” said Watts.