Hi-Line response to fatal Amtrak derailment ‘small-town, big-hearted’

By: - April 3, 2022 10:35 am

Three people died in the 2021 Amtrak derailment in Montana near the East Buelow switch. (Provided by Jason Stahl for the Daily Montanan)

CHESTER — Teresa Violett was outside her house in Chester, Montana, painting the cement foundation when she heard the sirens.

It was Saturday, Sept.  25. The retired teacher had lived in Liberty County for 38 years, and she knew what each siren meant: The first one, for a scheduled meeting. The second, for ambulance. The third, for fire.

But when a fourth sounded, Violett paused in her painting and looked up.  In all her years, she’d never heard a fourth siren sound in Chester.

It meant disaster. All hands on deck.

Ron and Teresa Violett of Chester, Montana. (Provided by Teresa Violett and Facebook for the Daily Montanan)

Ten blocks across town, 911 calls flooded the Liberty County Jail and Sheriff’s office.  Katie Swank, a longtime dispatcher, was beginning her shift when she took the first call. “The other phone started ringing before I even said hello. It was instant—everyone called at once.”

The westbound Empire Builder had derailed eight miles east of Chester near the East Buelow crossing on the north side of US Highway 2. The Amtrak train flies through the town of 850 twice daily, once eastbound and once westbound.

Eventually, something like 16 calls came in quick succession in those first ten minutes, some from passengers on the train.

A man driving down Highway 2 with his family was one of the first at the scene.  He called the sheriff’s office to confirm the location of the incident.

The train—two locomotives and ten railcars—looked like it had busted apart at the midsection. The front of the train was still tethered together and upright. Eight of the ten railcars were off the tracks with four of them on their sides. At the rear of the train, three cars still hooked together had tumbled off the tracks, rolled three times and landed on their sides.

The man’s emergency medical training allowed him to size up the scene, assess patients and treat some who were hurt.

In the dispatcher’s office, Swank had quickly realized the incident was unprecedented. Oh no, this is my worst nightmare, she remembers thinking.

Despite her shock and disbelief, she knew what to do. She opened a gray, plastic-covered box on the wall and sounded the siren four times. It was 3:57 p.m.

The disaster alarm triggered a chain reaction for Chester and much of north-central Montana. The Liberty County Ambulance and Fire Department dispatchers paged volunteers: “We have a massive disaster. Amtrak has derailed…” Law enforcement jumped into action and headed to the site with emergency crews and firetrucks in tow. Dispatchers who heard the disaster siren swarmed the office to help Swank with a barrage of incoming calls that included news media from as far away as London, Australia and Japan.

The dispatchers themselves had little information to go on. How many people were hurt? Was anyone trapped? They assumed the worst and summoned EMS agencies from neighboring counties: Toole, Hill, Pondera, Blaine, Glacier, Chouteau, and Cascade as well as Great Falls Fire and Rescue.

Scene from Amtrak derailment in Montana in September 2021. (Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

“We called Mercy Flight. We called everybody to start heading this way,” said Starr Tyler, a dispatcher who rushed into the office after Swank sounded the disaster call.  “Never since I’ve been here have we had four dispatchers in the office” at the same time.

Larry Hendrickson, an EMT and County Commissioner from Chester, made the decision to open the town’s two triage stations—the Senior Center and the Chester-Joplin-Inverness School gym. Dispatchers called in a fleet of drivers to take buses to the derailment site to transport passengers who appeared uninjured back to town. Some were in shock.

After the blare of the four sirens—three to five seconds each, Teresa Violett called Tyler to ask what was going on. Tyler told her she could help by heading to the gym.

Violett called her husband to give him the news, then rushed to the sheriff’s office to grab some clean blankets from the jail. She arrived at the gym at 5 p.m. and wouldn’t go home until midnight.

At the derailment site, as the dust settled, passengers began emerging from the train cars.

Dazed and bewildered, some stood on the tracks in disbelief.

Open arms, hearts

Amtrak touts the Empire Builder as a grand, 2,200-mile adventure with rapturous views of the American West. The train travels between Chicago and Seattle and Portland, a 45-hour one-way journey through eight states and with a dozen stops in Montana.

Chester was not supposed to be one of them.

Three passengers—all of them in the observation car—died in the Sept. 25 derailment. The train carried 154 people, according to the National Safety Transportation Board, and 44 were hospitalized in area facilities.

(Provided by Jason Stahl for the Daily Montanan)

In the six months since the accident, passengers and family members of the deceased have filed lawsuits against Amtrak, stating the company “was at fault and violated the highest duty of care.” A public relations spokesman for Amtrak confirmed that 18 lawsuits have been filed.

The NTSB is still investigating the cause of the derailment; a typical investigation can take 12-24 months to complete, according to NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

In the days immediately following the derailment, the region was praised for its swift and selfless response. Scores of volunteers had converged on the crash site and the town of Chester. Survivors would remember this fly-over region of the rural west as a place of open arms and hearts.

Amtrak later expressed its gratitude by making two donations, $50,000 to be split between the towns of Chester and Joplin according to population, and $50,000 to the area Red Cross.

Among the area’s residents, there was a humble pride. Many who helped out that day did not want to be mentioned by name, saying the story wasn’t theirs to tell but rather the survivors. They expressed gratefulness that the tragedy was not worse. What were the odds, some asked, that the accident would occur in the 24 miles of Liberty County that the Empire Builder traverses in its 2,200-mile run?

“It’s tragic for sure, but there are also so many mercies in the whole story,” said Elizabeth Campbell, a local EMT who helped passengers at the scene.

The derailment occurred on a slow Saturday afternoon, when few people were out working, so they could be reached quickly and jump into action.

It was September, and the weather was unseasonably warm. A month later, snow might have hindered access for the ambulances. Rain and mud might have slogged the entire operation.

Instead there was just wind, dust and sunshine.

‘Get the hell out of here’

Steve Glaser, a 66-year-old New York Life Insurance agent, had spent the morning in the sightseer lounge car with a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Glaser, who lives in San Leandro, California, was himself recently widowed. He and Deena had clocked 43 years together. He quickly befriended the couple from Georgia, and the three planned to meet up again later.

Switch at East Buelow crossing. (Provided by Jason Stahl for the Daily Montanan)

Glaser was returning home from the East Coast, where he’d visited a friend in Vermont after burying his mother in Florida. He’d chosen to travel by train because of the adventure of it—“I’d always wanted to take a long train trip across the U.S.” He was on the second leg of his journey. He’d caught the Lakeshore Limited from Albany, New York, to Chicago, then boarded the Empire Builder at Chicago’s Union Station at about 2 p.m. on Friday.

The Empire Builder 7/27 chugged through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota that afternoon and evening—stopping in major towns and cities to pick up or deliver passengers. Glaser slept in a private roomette and took his meals in the dining car.

By noon on Saturday, the train entered Montana’s Big Sky Country as it followed the Hi-Line, the northernmost track of rails in the state near the Canadian border.

After a late lunch, Glaser retired to his roomette—on the lower deck of the sleeper car—to watch “The Great British Baking Show.” His friend Greta in Vermont had recommended it, and if Glaser had learned anything from 43 years of marriage, it was to do whatever a woman asked him to do, and right away. So he put off his rendezvous with his new friends from Georgia. He hoped to rejoin them later instead to enjoy the view of Glacier National Park.

He’d just settled into his roomette when he suddenly heard a clicking and clanging sound. Then he felt a shuddering, “like being in a huge earthquake”—something he’d experienced while living in California.

He knew something was wrong. Then, he realized what.

This thing is off the rails.

If it stays upright, he thought, I’m okay. Eventually it’s going to stop.

In that moment, he felt the out-of-control sensation he’d experienced when skiing too close to a mountain’s edge. He thought of having just updated the beneficiaries on his life insurance policy before leaving on the trip.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he said out loud.

The seconds ticked by slowly. And then the train stopped.

Steve’s car was leaning slightly, but it was still upright. He breathed in the acrid smell of something electrical burning. He knew he had to get out.

An announcement came over the public address system.

“Don’t leave the train. Don’t leave the train.”

Glaser tried the doors. They wouldn’t budge. His window was an emergency exit but he couldn’t get the weather-stripping gasket out from around it.

They’re telling us to stay on the train, a guy with a wife and baby from the next compartment told him.

“I know,” Glaser said, “but they’re the people who crashed the train.”

Windowpane dislodged from the frame in Amtrak derailment in Montana. (Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

Together, the two coaxed the windowpane out of the frame.

Glaser grabbed his laptop and briefcase and started out. His neighbors just stood there watching.

“Hey, get the hell out of here,” he told them.  “You’ve got a baby. There’s no reason to hang around this train.”

They followed him out. Because their rooms had been on the lower deck, they could step onto the tracks.

Outside, Glaser looked around. Dirt roads, a highway off in the distance, huge stubble fields, and a few farms and grain bins dotted the landscape. The day was warm, crackly dry and windy. The land had the golden-brown hue of late fall.

We really dodged the bullet, he thought. Then he looked toward the rear of the train.

Behind his car, the observation car had tipped over. The last three cars were separated from the rest of the train by a few hundred feet and had made an almost complete somersault before coming to rest on their sides.

“Oh my God, people are trapped in there,” he told fellow passengers who’d gotten out. “We’re okay. But those people aren’t.”

A passenger who was a military medic emerged from the sightseer lounge car. Someone inside, he said, didn’t make it.

Flipped cars, swift response

Larry Hendrickson was one of the first EMTs on scene. He and other volunteers headed toward the cars that were flipped.

A lady trapped inside the last car reported having little feeling below her neck. Someone stabilized her inside the car and then Hendrickson and a crew of others worked to get her out. She was taken away by ambulance.

Before long, the scene swarmed with EMS personnel in a kind of controlled chaos.

Elizabeth Campbell, the volunteer EMT from Rudyard, a town about 20 miles away, helped get a seriously injured woman on a stretcher and into an ambulance. Campbell and two crew members ferried the woman, her husband and an Amtrak attendant to the Liberty County Hospital. The husband was relatively unhurt; the Amtrak employee had a fractured arm.

After handing off their patients, Campbell and her crew returned to the scene. That’s when she paused to take in the unfolding magic.

Able-bodied survivors assisted each other as they exited the train.  They made sure the people around them were out of danger and moving to safety.

“It was, in a lot of ways, humanity at its finest,” Campbell would say later.

She helped move passengers into an adjacent stubble field, where community members handed out water. An Amtrak employee brought blankets.

Glaser, who’d watched the EMS crews at work, was cleared to return to his train car to retrieve the rest of his belongings.

Then buses appeared and volunteers helped passengers board. He remembers having no idea where he was going, just that he was being taken care of.

In the middle of nowhere

The first busload of survivors entered the school gym around 6 p.m.

Many were covered in dirt.

“They looked like they were coming from Ground Zero,” recalled Abbey Aitken, secretary for Chester-Joplin-Inverness Public Schools.

Most had no idea where Chester, Montana, was.

Scene from Amtrak derailment in Montana in September 2021. (Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

Liberty County Medical Center personnel and EMS workers took vitals, taped wrists and ankles, bandaged wounds, treated for shock and sent the most severe cases to nearby hospitals.

At the Liberty Medical Center in Chester—which had called in its entire staff—doctors and nurses triaged 31 people Saturday evening. None were kept overnight, according to public information officer Amanda Fritz.

A medical volunteer at the gym said it was amazing to witness what happened there. No one was yelling and no one was fighting about masks, she said. Everyone did what they were trained to do. “It made my heart explode.”

Volunteers provided towels to passengers who needed to clean up and showed them to the school’s locker rooms.

When Glaser walked into the school gym, he felt like he’d entered a movie.

“This is not real, this is not real! You go into the gym and it’s the cleanest, shiniest gym I’ve ever seen.”

He couldn’t believe how everything was unfolding. First, he’d thought, I’m in the middle of nowhere and I’m screwed. Then he realized the middle of nowhere was exactly where you want to be when a disaster happens.

“Because if it happened in my neighborhood and someone said, ‘I’m going to help you with your luggage’ they would steal your luggage. They would take it and disappear, where here the minute people showed up you had nothing to worry about.”

Owners of the Chester Supermarket, Ricky and CJ Maan, brought wipes, bandages, pizza, water, Gatorade and ice. The two brothers, whose extended family is from India, also took pizzas to the crash site for the railroad workers. They gave freely from their shelves so the stranded passengers would feel cared for. When Chester residents came to the store to buy supplies for the passengers, the Maans didn’t charge them either. “Just take it,” shoppers were told.

Quilts arrived, courtesy of the Joplin Quilters, a group that meets weekly at Joplin’s Bethel Lutheran Church. They make about 500 quilts a year and give them to graduating seniors, cancer patients, new babies, and shelters who house women and children.

Volunteers distributed snacks and drinks. But they also provided nourishment for the spirit. Three local pastors—Stephen Nelson, Chad Smith and Travis Powers—  visited both the Senior Center and the school to offer consolation, hugs, prayers and smiles. Nelson said people’s biggest concerns were: “What’s going to happen with us? Where are we going to go from here?”

Kelcey and Nancy Diemert drove 80 miles into town from Chinook to open their pharmacy, which was normally closed on Saturdays. Passengers who didn’t have their luggage needed medications. “I just felt really bad for those folks,” he said. “They went through a nightmare.” The Diemerts didn’t charge anything for the prescriptions and Amtrak later reimbursed the pharmacy.

It's tragic for sure, but there are also so many mercies in the whole story

– Elizabeth Campbell, local EMT

Someone told Glaser that the Hutterites were coming with sandwiches.

“What’s a Hutterite?” he asked.

“Wait until they come.”

More than 5,000 Hutterites live in nearly 60 colonies scattered throughout Montana. The Anabaptist group is a spiritual cousin of the Amish and Mennonites. They embrace technology and live a communal lifestyle based on a 500-year history.

Ten women from Hidden Valley Colony south of Gildford in neighboring Hill County brought bologna and cheese sandwiches and fed passengers in the gym from 6 to 8 p.m.

The women wore polka-dot headscarves and austere homemade dresses. Glaser wanted to take pictures of them but did not, out of respect. He made a mental note to read up on them later.

Amtrak officials and law enforcement brought luggage from the crash site and asked passengers to retrieve what belonged to them.

An important suitcase holding a wedding dress found its owners: A couple who’d just gotten married was headed to Glacier National Park, where they planned to honeymoon and pose for pictures.

(Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

As passengers’ stories unspooled in the gym, Teresa Violett marveled at their attitudes. They were thankful for the food and shelter. But mostly, they were just glad to be alive.

Glaser didn’t want to rely on Amtrak anymore. Still in shock, he called his friend Greta to help him learn about his whereabouts and options for getting home. He made a plan to get to Great Falls and then fly to Oakland. He learned a motel was in walking distance and called to make a reservation.

But volunteers didn’t let him walk. They gave him a ride to the Liberty Quick Stop convenience store, which is the face of the MX Motel. He checked in at about 7 p.m.

Noticing the freezer case next to the counter, Glaser had to try the made-in-Montana Wilcoxson’s ice cream.  He sat down outside, noticed the huge grain elevators across the road to the north and remembers thinking, “Boy, you know this is the best ice cream I’ve ever had and this is just the weirdest thing I’ve ever been through.”

He still needed to get the hundred miles to Great Falls the next day but given the help and care he’d already experienced, he didn’t worry.

Somehow it would happen.

After the crisis, faith

Train memorial. (Provided by Jason Stahl for the Daily Montanan)

Roughly eight hours after the derailment, only a handful of people from the Empire Builder remained in Chester. Many had been bused 40 miles to Shelby, where there were more motel rooms. The gym was empty by midnight.

The sirens had stopped. The flashing lights were gone. The rush of people and traffic, only a memory. Even the rails fell silent. In a place where trains rumbled through town regularly, their absence in the coming days would feel disorienting.

As crews finished up, Tara Hendrickson, the ambulance director for Liberty County Emergency Services, texted someone who’d offered to cook a meal for the ambulance and fire crews earlier in the day.

It was 11:30 p.m.

“Is there any way that you could still make that meal?” she asked.

In short order, a spaghetti and salad dinner was laid out on tables in the ambulance barn. It was 12:30 a.m. by the time the crews sat down to eat.

“It makes you have a little bit more faith in humanity when it’s so totally divided right now,” said Hendrickson. “Especially in today’s world, it’s really nice when we can come together and work together.”

New friends lost

Memorial at the Crossing. (Provided by Jason Stahl for the Daily Montanan)

On Sunday morning, Glaser walked into the convenience store for coffee and Jesse Anderson, the Liberty Quick Stop and MX Motel owner, said, “Steve, they’re going to pick you up at 11 o’clock to take you to Great Falls.”

Anderson also offered Glaser a premade burrito and, being a food snob from the Bay Area, he initially refused. After deciding he needed some nourishment, he found it to be the best thing he’d ever eaten.

Retired farmers trickled in for coffee and included Glaser in their conversations. When it came time to check out of the motel, Anderson refused to take any payment.

On time at 11, Glenda Hanson—the Liberty County Council on Aging director who had driven a bus back and forth from the crash site to the triage stations the previous day—picked up Glaser and several other passengers and took them to Shelby. There, Glaser caught another bus to Great Falls.

He was home in California a few days before he learned from his brother-in-law that two of the people who died in the crash were from Georgia. Glaser realized they were Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe, the friends he had made in the sightseer lounge car. A third person, Zach Schneider from Illinois, also died in that car. Had Glaser not been waylaid by watching “The Great British Baking Show,” he might have been there with them.

Empathy from Hi-Line to Newtown, Connecticut

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, a train rolled through Chester for the first time in three days. It was something like a return to order. A way of marking time again.

Soon, the cards and letters began to arrive.

“I was very, very, lucky,” Steve Glaser wrote to the Liberty County Commissioners. “First, to have survived uninjured, and second, that the accident happened in Liberty County.

“The Old Testament mentions the obligation to help the stranger at least 36 times…It was an amazing feeling to bear witness to and benefit from the wonderful community response to this tragic event.”

(Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

Iwonka Piotrowska and David Resnick of Rockville Centre, New York, wrote a letter to the Liberty County Times. “The two of us were in the observation car, and while our own injuries were not serious, it was a life-changing and harrowing experience nonetheless, and we will forever be grateful to all of you for your help that day…”

People began sending money to the Maan brothers, owners of the Chester Supermarket, thanking them for their help. But they didn’t want reimbursement. They donated the proceeds to the community’s school. “They can use it for kids,” Ricky Maan said, “for their future.”

The 911 dispatchers of Newtown, Connecticut, who’d responded to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School reached out by email to the Liberty County dispatchers and sheriff. They said they were thinking of the Montana crew and wanted to check in with them. They sent a care package of medallions and a box of candy.

Rebecca Schneider, who lost her 28-year-old husband Zach in the disaster, wrote on Facebook:  “I also want to express my gratitude to the people of Chester, Montana, who cared for me, housed me and advocated for me while I was away from home and trying (to) navigate this nightmare. I do not know how I will survive without the love of my life, but I take comfort in knowing there are people who support me.”

Yet none of these Good Samaritans will accept the label of hero. Some wouldn’t even allow the media to use their names.

They said they didn’t do anything special. They simply responded to a crisis. It’s the small-town, big-hearted way.

Return to Montana

Steve Glaser (left), rail passenger, and Jesse Anderson, Liberty Quick Stop and MX Motel owner. (Provided by Steve Glaser for the Daily Montanan)

Exactly a week after the crash, Steve Glaser got a phone call from a Montana number. It was Jesse Anderson, checking on him and asking for his address.

A few days later, a postcard from Liberty County showed up.

Greetings from the middle of nowhere!
We are glad to know that you made it back home safe.
Looking forward to the day we can see you again under better circumstances!
~Jesse and the crew at the MX Motel!

Glaser already has plans to go back in May—this time, by car.

He dreams of a VIP tour of the Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream facility in Livingston, Montana. He’s even contemplated quitting his job to go to work for Wilcoxson’s.

In the quality control department, of course—as a taste tester.

This story originally ran in the Havre Daily News.

How this story was reported

The Amtrak derailment in North-Central Montana on Sept. 25, 2021, resulted in three deaths and made national headlines. This story, which focuses on the region’s response to the accident, was reconstructed through interviews, public records and correspondence. 

The reporter, Jason Stahl, traveled to the Hi-Line in October and December to interview local townspeople, EMS personnel, dispatchers, law enforcement, school officials, county commissioners, business owners, medical providers, pastors and volunteers. He also spoke at length with several survivors of the derailment. Among the documents he reviewed were the National Transportation and Safety Board’s investigation report, official Amtrak statements, Liberty County press releases, lawsuits filed in response to the accident, letters to the editor, Facebook posts, emails, and texts. He was also in contact with spokespeople from Amtrak, the NTSB and BNSF Railway.  

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jason Stahl
Jason Stahl

Jason Stahl is a senior at the University of Montana. He was born and raised in a Hutterite colony north of Gildford, Montana, 50 miles from the site of the accident. This story was his final project for a special course, "The Worst Day Ever: Writing about Trauma," taught at UM’s School of Journalism by fall 2021 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor Jan Winburn.