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In rural Montana, everything was on the bridge after the derailment

CHESTER, Mont. –Trevor Fossen was late for a wedding on Saturday afternoon when he pulled into a dusty gravel road in the Montana countryside as a westbound train approached the crossing in front of him.

The train never reached the level crossing. The next thing Fossen saw was a wall of dust filling the sky.

“I started looking at this, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train rolled over and derailed,” said Fossen, a 29-year-old farmer.

It was an Amtrak Empire Builder en route from Chicago to Seattle that had derailed, killing three people and injuring dozens more. Investigators still don’t know what caused the crash.

Fossen called 911, triggering a chain reaction of help from residents of the nearby towns of Joplin and Chester as people mobilized to get people off the train, treat injured passengers and those who were stunned and had suffered bumps, bruises and other less serious injuries.

The regional response of volunteer rescuers, firefighters, law enforcement, medical providers and ordinary citizens all working together to help those whose journeys were so suddenly and violently interrupted embodied the spirit of a rural part of the country. Montana near the Canadian border.

Fossen said he started helping first responders get a handful of people out of a tilted train car, then returned to three cars that were detached from the train and were lying on their side. He and others helped pull a seriously injured woman out of a car. Others helped unload the baggage car near the front of the train.

The three who did not survive were identified as Donald Varnadoe, 74, and Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, a married couple from Georgia; and Zachariah Schneider, a 29-year-old man from Illinois. All were pronounced dead at the scene, the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office said.

Dale Fossen, Trevor’s uncle, operates a farm nearby and arrived at the scene shortly after the accident. The 75-year-old amateur photographer said he was not sure what he could do to help, but he observed the chaotic scene and took some photos with his cell phone.

“There are a lot of people standing around. Some of them are sitting, others are holding parts of their body like an arm or a head. People say they are in a lot of pain,” he said. declared.

“People are sort of standing in the dust, just stunned,” he said. “I saw a little child, mother and father, sitting on the train tracks just behind the first car I saw lying on its side. The little girl was crying.”

Dale Fossen said he climbed a hill and saw the three cars on the side.

“I could see people standing on top of the middle car and ladders and I saw them trying to punch a hole in the roof that was on the side,” he said. The effort to cut the wagon failed, even with the Jaws of Life gear.

He spoke to a man he estimated to be between 35 and 40 who told him he was in one of the cars when it started to tip over to the side and a big spring went through the windshield near him.

“So he grabbed something as the car rolled over,” Fossen said. “He said the only thing preventing him from going under the train was that it was hanging on.”

Meanwhile, Liberty Medical Center in Chester called all of its staff – including housekeeping – and most responded, said Bev Halter, director of human resources. They sorted 31 patients on Saturday evening.

“We may be a small critical access hospital in a remote location, but we were able to show the extent of our commitment to be here for those in need,” Halter said in a statement. “We are very grateful to this facility, our employees and the community who have come together to provide the best response and care possible. “

Those seriously injured were taken by ambulance or air ambulance to other hospitals in the area that had called and offered to help, said Sarah Robbin, disaster and emergency services coordinator for Liberty County. .

Those who were not seriously injured were loaded onto school buses and the senior citizen bus and taken to a school gymnasium and community center in Chester, where residents helped them charge their cell phones to call emergency services. families and healthcare workers assessed them for injuries. Some were able to take showers and passengers were offered something to eat.

Ricky Maan, owner of the Chester supermarket, said he provided water, ice and made pizza and allowed residents to take everything passengers needed, including towels, wipes and bandages .

“I told my cashier not to charge them,” said Maan, whose family bought groceries five years ago. “We can help those people who have already suffered.”

He added, “We like to help all the time. It’s our community…. We lived in a big city, we never see like that. But in a small town, everyone is like, once that something happens, it’s all together. “

A religious group brought in ingredients for making sandwiches. Some people drove passengers to Great Falls or Kalispell to reunite with hospitalized family members and others took passengers to Great Falls to catch a return flight, officials said.

“I just want to say the response across the Hi-Line has been fantastic,” said Robbin, the DES coordinator. “We can’t thank our partners enough, who came from all over and did what they needed to do and it will be just one of those things that I don’t know we’ll ever be able to pay back, but just know that when they pass the call, we’ll be there for them. “

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