Train Wreck

November 17, 2021

On September 25, 2021 an Amtrak passenger train derailed on the sparsely populated high plain between Joplin and Chester Montana. A local resident witnessed the accident from a gravel road crossing while waiting for the train to pass by. The train never passed and a “wall of dust filled the sky”.  About 141 passengers and 16 crew members were on board. Approximately 50 people suffered significant injuries and 3 were pronounced dead at the site. The wreck garnered national news for a few days, but was then relegated to the “back pages”. Some minimally reported details of the disaster remain poignant to me.

The 2020 census listed the population of Joplin at 218. Chester, the county seat of Liberty County Montana, counted 785 residents. The two towns are the only persisting communities of “significant size” in the county and both are declining. Chester still operates a critical access hospital, but the closest full services hospitals are in Great Falls over 90 highway miles to the south. The nearest small commercial airport is about 60 miles east of the accident site. Yet, for the most part, the incident and its aftermaths were rapidly and skillfully managed.

When I was in medical school and residency we commonly called a difficult medical challenge a “train wreck”. I am not sure how the moniker originated, but passenger train wrecks typically inflict multiple injuries posing a variety of medical challenges. In contrast, airplane wrecks specialize in fatalities, ship wrecks submerge and car wrecks usually involve fewer victims. Ironically, another train wreck occurred in 1966 at the same site and is described in the biography that I authored (Windblown; The Remarkable Life of Richard s. Buker Jr., MD; A Family Doctor). 

The small community’s response to the derailment was also remarkable. Volunteers summoned by the eyewitness rapidly assembled. People were transported to towns by school buses, campers and automobiles. Minor injuries were treated by professionals at Chester’s Liberty County Hospital. Seriously damaged people were transported to Great Falls and Kalispell by air ambulances. A number of perfunctory, but important needs were managed by altruistic neighbors. A retired nurse took orders from people who had lost needed medications. A pharmacist filled the orders without delay. Cellphones were charged or donated so people could call to inform and reassure their families. Clothing, showers and conversational comforts were supplied by people wanting to help in some way. Chester’s grocery opened their door and donated food and various items telling volunteers to “take what you need” to serve the refugees. Members of a nearby Hutterite colony brought sandwiches. Area drivers transported stranded people to regional airports and helped them make connections.

Although I hesitate to credit the late Doctor Buker for the community’s response, I suspect many would agree that his many years of care and concern for this rural outpost left them prepared to meet the challenge that they managed so well. Although Amtrak made efforts and contributions to thank the communities, none of the contributors sought or expected reimbursements. Medical personnel treated and transported injured people without collecting payer information. I am recurrently dismayed when I hear acquaintances and national spokespersons denigrate rural America. I will use this story to introduce my contention that rural prejudice is generated by both sides of the political spectrum. This well tolerated bias is often subtle but still disgraceful. I am grateful to small towns and rural residents who live up to values that made our homeland great.

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