Friday, February 02, 2007

The Big Bang

As I was driving to work this morning, wishing that my car would warm up faster (-10 degrees last night!), the radio DJ mentioned that today was the 18th anniversary of what is known around here as "The Explosion". Anyone who was in Helena at the time will never forget that day.

The circumstances actually started a day earlier. Personally, I was teaching in a small school about 70 miles south. I remember vividly that I was home sick that day--a Wednesday. It was a warm sunny day (for Montana in February), but the weather forecast called for an Arctic cold front to come through the state. While laying on the couch, I surfed the handful of channels I could receive, including the local cable company's channel that had the time and temperature. I watched as, in the span of less than 2 hours, the temperature fell from a (Montana) balmy mid-40s to temps in the teens. As I watched the news that night, the governor did something that rarely ever happens--he canceled all school classes for the remainder of the week. And the temperatures dropped.

In the early morning hours, temperatures in the mountains outside of Helena dropped to near -40 degrees, with wind chills of -70 degrees. A freight train stopped near the top of a mountain pass, with crews having to manually re-couple cars and engines. I don't remember all the details, but the result was that a number of unmanned cars slowly started rumbling down the mountain. They picked up speed, and rolled unobstructed into town. No warnings, no bells, no lights. Their final resting place--just off the campus of Carroll College. Some helper engines were on the track, and the runaway cars ran full force into them. No one came forward to say that they actually observed the crash, but many heard the crash. But no one knew what was to happen next. From the National Transportation Safety Board's safety recommendation after the crash:
    "...Two aluminum DOT-111A tank cars containing hydrogen peroxide (a strong oxidizer) and one steel DOT-111Atank car containing acetone and isopropyl alcohol (in dual compartments) were severly damaged and released their products. Fire and explosions resulted, dispersing fragments of one of the aluminum tank cars as far away as 1/2 mile. About 3,500 persons were evacuated, 2 persons were injured, and damage and cost of cleanup exceeded $6 million"
The explosion could be heard and felt for miles. The fireball lit up the dark pre-dawn skies. Literally every window in the girl's dorm on campus was shattered, as well as homes and businesses within a mile. Power was lost in the entire city for hours on the coldest day in recent history. Water pipes burst, and the water instantly turned to ice all over town. The local fire department couldn't do much, other than to let the hazardous materials burn themselves out. And keep the flames from spreading. The remaining cars that weren't blown to smithereens were stacked 3-4 stories high, and were coated in foam and ice. The Cathedral of St. Helena, a huge church on a hilltop a mile away, literally shifted. It was closed for a full year a decade later as repairs were made to the cracks to the interior pillars.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the explosion, other than the fact that there was no known loss of life, was the flight of a train axle. I spent hours looking for photos online, but was unsuccessful (if I find any, I'll post them). But visualize this--on the picture below, the explosion happened just to the left of the blue area in the lower left corner.

A train axle was blown OVER the entire campus, over building #6 in the center of campus, and landing through the roof of a house that used to sit approximately where the two blue parking lots are on the right side of the picture. Next to the bedroom of the elderly lady who lived there. For a better visualization, see below--

The girl's dorm is on the right, and bldg #6 is the one on the top of the hill. (axle would have come from the right side of this pic, diagonally over the tallest bldg.)

Even though I wasn't here to witness this event, it still stands out as one of the biggest events of the past 60 years (or more). And as I drove to work, I realized that it might not have been as cold as I originally thought.

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