A week before the horrific 1996 train wreck and chlorine spill near Alberton, one of two engineers who would be trapped by a toxic cloud of gas for more than 20 frantic minutes inside the lead locomotive had a chance encounter with his boss.
In a 1998 deposition in Missoula District Court, Bill Schutter said his train was stopped at Frenchtown and he’d walked back to check out a report of an open boxcar door. Bill Brodsky, Montana Rail Link president, happened to be parked nearby and helped Schutter close the door. Then Brodsky gave the 30-year-old engineer a ride back to the head of the train.
Author Ron Scholl writes that Schutter shared his concern about the “rough” condition of the tracks on the west end of MRL’s line. He thought a bad derailment was in the offing.
“Brodsky told Schutter he knew the track was in bad condition, but there was so much traffic and business, they couldn’t get maintenance out there to repair a lot of it,” Scholl writes.
More than 20 years later, “Alberton, Montana: A Toxic Train Wreck” will likely touch a few raw nerves as Scholl rolls it out, chapter by chapter, in blog form over the next three months. Scholl released the first chapter on Oct. 3, and by Sunday will be on Chapter 10. He figures the last one will be posted soon after the first of the year.
The blog is found at albertonmontanathebook.com and Scholl will email the daily updates on a free subscription basis. There’s a tab on the website for donations. When the rollout is finished he’ll shut down the blog and continue it as an e-book.
“Until then I’m airing it out and looking for revisions,” said Scholl, whose day job is with Missoula Community Access Television (MCAT) as supervisor of the media assistance grant program for nonprofits.
“There’s a lot of material there," Scholl said of "Alberton, Montana." "It’s long. It’s much too long, but I’m at the point now where I wanted to release it in this sort of soft release.”
Later in the book/blog he'll get into the ensuing litigation against Brodsky's railroad.
"MRL argued that the derailment was caused by an internal defect called a vertical split head, that occurred rapidly and could not have been anticipated," Scholl said in an email last week. "In the only case to try them on liability and negligence (Austin v. MRL in 2001), the jury found them not guilty."
But first: A riveting first chapter that gets right to the point.
Scholl, a graduate of the University of Montana’s creative writing and environmental studies program, traces train engineer John Caswell and Schutter, his assistant, on their 280-mile run from Spokane to Missoula starting the night of April 10, 1996.
Their locomotives were pulling a load more than 15 football fields in length. Scattered through the line of 71 cars was one tanker carrying sodium chlorate, four in a row filled with liquid chlorine headed for Houston and three containing other hazardous materials.
At a crossing near the Montana-Idaho line along the Clark Fork River the train hit a rough patch that bounced Schutter off the control stand and, according to Caswell’s court deposition in 1998, “literally made the engines jog off the rail.” Shortly after dropping two of their five locomotives at Noxon, Caswell said they encountered another "rough spot" on the track that they reported two days earlier and other crews had been reporting for a week and a half.
"It hadn't been fixed and had no slow order either," Scholl writes.
Lost in the general chaos of the Alberton derailment and spill a few hours later was the dispatch Montana Rail Link received within five minutes of the wreck. Another train had jumped the track near Noxon.
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"Four engines and 16 cars were on the ground, with diesel leaking and a report of sparks and flames,” Scholl said, citing MRL West dispatchers tapes in the National Transportation and Safety Board's Alberton file.
The derailment occurred just after 4 a.m. on a dark and rainy stretch near Reardon Crossing, west of and across the Clark Fork River from Alberton.
Among the toppled cars was a tanker containing 180,000 pounds of liquid gas. It ruptured and the deadly gas soon spread into the sky and up and down the river, forcing the evacuation of Alberton and surrounding homes for 17 days and closing Interstate 90 for two weeks. A happy-go-lucky hobo named John Elmer Smith Jr. of Seattle, 70, had hopped an open gondola car in Spokane. He died almost instantly, not because his car derailed but from inhaling the chlorine gas. An unidentified companion ran up the mountain and was one of hundreds who were treated for exposure to the chemicals in Missoula and Superior hospitals.
In the subsequent 14 chapters of Part I, Scholl discusses the history and culture of the old railroad towns of Alberton and Lothrop, and documents the confusion and chaos that ensued in the next 2½ weeks. Part II, he said, will be a look at the cleanup, the returns of some evacuees and the refusals of others to go home.
Scholl has divided what would be close to 1,000 pages in a traditional book into eight parts. He takes deep dives into subsequent investigations, litigation and the long-term health issues of victims. And he lends his own voice to Part 8, “The Last Train,” in which he discusses lessons that can be drawn from the fateful wreck based on interviews with victims and responders.
Scholl said he, like many people, had put the Alberton chlorine spill behind him in 1997 as he finished his degree in environmental studies at UM. A classmate, Lisa Mosca, had arrived in Missoula after the spill but had a friend who was affected by it.
“Suddenly these protests started happening at Max Baucus’ office downtown, and she filmed the protests,” Scholl said. “Through her I found out there was something still going on. People were complaining about long-term health effects. Initially I was looking at it from the environmental justice standpoint, but as I got in deeper I realized I wanted to document the whole spill and aftermath.
“It still has a focal point based on the victims who had long-term health problems, but I also wanted to take a comprehensive look at the whole thing.”
He conducted some 60 interviews himself and tapped into perhaps 30 more that Mosca and others conducted. The sources Scholl cites for the early chapters alone run the gamut from MRL train records, timetables and dispatch tapes to the Federal Railroad Administration investigation report and engineer interviews, to depositions and Missoula County meeting minutes and even a press release from the environmental group Montana CHEER two months after the spill.
Scholl said he had to put the project on the back burner for “much longer than I’d hoped,” after he got on full-time at MCAT in 2003.
Now the results of his exhaustive research in the late 1990s and early 2000s are finally seeing the light of cyberspace.
“I want it to be a resource for whoever’s interested, whether it’s responders, spill victims or people who want to look at incident command systems, or litigation of toxic chemical spills,” Scholl said. “It ends with an appendices where people can look for more detailed information. I want this to be as accurate as possible.”
In his prologue, Scholl said the Alberton train wreck resulted in what at the time was the largest chlorine spill and mixed-chemical spill in U.S. rail history.
More than 1,000 people were forced from their homes, many to emergency rooms. More than a dozen were hospitalized though just one, the hobo Smith, died. It took 17 days to finally empty the ruptured tank of liquid chlorine and end the evacuation order.
"By and large, as reported in local news and government documents, the story ended there," Scholl writes. "The aftermath was for claims agents and lawyers to sort out.
"As it turned out, this story had legs."