Friday, October 14, 2022

Day 158: The Amtrak Disaster

September 25: My train back to Seattle didn't leave until about 6:30 in the evening, so I had all day to relax and goof around in East Glacier. I noticed a few changes since my last visit less than a week earlier. For instance, Brownies had been completely boarded up. The store had closed for the season the last time I was there, but the building hadn't been boarded up--not like it was now.

Additional businesses had closed as well. I tried to drop into the Glacier Park Lodge, but it was now closed for the season. I was glad I made my visit the last time I was in town. I hadn't realized it would be closed by the time I returned to town again.

Lots of drama at the East Glacier train station this evening!

Much of the day I spent just chatting with other thru-hikers. A large group of about a dozen people had just arrived and were working to get permits through the park. One person I was surprised to see was Money. I didn't understand how he had fallen so far behind me until he bragged that he had taken something like 50 or 60 zero days on the trail. He seemed determined to set a record for the most zero days ever taken on the CDT by a thru-hiker.

About an hour before the train was scheduled to arrived, I picked up all my worldly possessions and said goodbye to everyone, then headed over to the train station.

There were a few others there, and we sat around waiting. The animated screen showing train schedules showed that our train was scheduled to arrive about an hour late. I wasn't particularly surprised about this since Amtrak is notorious for running late--especially on these long-distance trains. This train we'd be boarding was the Empire Builder, and it started in Chicago, taking two days before arriving in Seattle.

While waiting for the train, one of the other passengers noticed a fox by the train station, so we all got up to admire the fox. I was surprised it was out in the open and didn't seem to mind the crowd of us watching it. It was my first really good look a fox in the "wild"--if outside of the train station could really be considered wild.

Eventually the fox wandered off, and we continued to wait for the train. I chatted with one of the other thru-hikers who was also scheduled to ride the train. Then a guy showed up saying that he heard that there had been an Amtrak train that derailed. He didn't provide any details, though. Just that one had derailed. Somewhere.

There are Amtrak trains all over the country, though. I didn't know exactly how many, but even if the rumor were true, it seemed unlikely it would be our train. Anyhow, our train was still scheduled to arrive at 7:30 or so according to the signage at the train station. The train station didn't have an Amtrak worker there to check people in or anything, though, so there was no one to ask about anything.

It was about 10 minutes later when someone checking their phone found a news article about an Amtrak train that derailed in Montana not too long ago, and that there were at least three fatalities.

Hmm.... I was pretty sure that there couldn't be more than about two Amtrak trains in Montana today. The only Amtrak route that went through Montana was the Empire Builder, and one train passed through in each direction. At this point, I thought there was a better than 50/50 chance our train had derailed. The morning train going eastbound had gone through town hours earlier, but I wasn't sure if it would have been out of the state yet.

At this point, everyone at the train station became immensely interested in this train derailment, myself included. I pulled out my own phone to see what I could find out about it online, at which point I noticed a voicemail from my sister.

She had left a message asking if I was alright. She had heard on the news about a train derailment in Montana and knew I had been planning to take the train that evening. I called her back immediately and told her I was fine--not even on a train as of yet, and that we were still trying to figure out if it was our train that had actually derailed. If it derailed and there were three fatalities, I was very confident in predicting that our train would be canceled--we just hadn't heard anything yet.

I gave my mom a call to let her know I was fine. I didn't think she had heard about the train derailment yet. If she had, she probably would have called already, but I called her to let her know that I was fine just in case she did hear about it later. No reason for her to worry unnecessarily.

I also gave Amanda a call. Amanda answered the phone immediately. "Hi, how's it going?" she asked.

"Well..." I said, not really sure where to start, "I think my train derailed?"


"Yeah, I think my train derailed. I'm not 100% certain of the fact, but it seems likely." I went on to explain the situation. "Anyhow, I just wanted to give you a head's up, just in case you happened to hear about it."

"Do you need a ride?" she asked me. She was with friends at a concert in the Seattle area. 

"Maybe," I told her, but said to hang off for the moment. I still wasn't sure what all was happening and needed to learn more. Maybe I'd just spend the night at the hostel and catch the train tomorrow instead.

We hung up, but I promised to keep in touch with updates. She had a friend who works as an engineer on Amtrak and sometimes works this route and said she'd try to call him about updates as well. And make sure he wasn't actually on the train, which was a possibility.

It didn't take long before we found a news article saying that it was the westbound train that had derailed. It was my train. I was literally at the train station waiting for that train to arrive, but at this point, I knew it never would. The board marking train arrivals continued to say that the train was delayed until 7:30 or so.

Most of the passengers wandered off by around this point. I decided to wait until about 7:30 and see what happened. Although there were no employees working at this station now, maybe one of them would get a call to come out and help all the stranded passengers. Maybe they were making arrangements to have a bus come by and pick us up. I was curious what would happen with the digital sign when the supposed time that the train would arrive never arrived.

I did call Will and Luna at the hostel to let them know that I'd likely be returning for an extra night. When I called, Will answered the phone, and when I told him it was Green Tortuga, he asked, "So, are you spending another night? I heard about the train derailment."

They had already figured out that I'd probably be returning to the hostel even before I called. I confirmed the situation but said I'd hang out until 7:30pm to see if anything happened.

While waiting, we continued to look for updates about the train derailment. Apparently, it happened only a few hours before it was scheduled to arrive at this station. And the most recent news reports we read said that there were at least 10 fatalities. It was bad.... But those counts seemed to be wrong. In subsequent days, only 3 fatalities were listed. Dozens went to the hospital.

I was grateful that I wasn't on the train when the train derailed, but it certainly caused some trouble for me. The other thru-hiker there tried calling the Amtrak customer service number about changing his ticket, but after being on hold for about 45 minutes, it disconnected when his phone ran out of power. Perhaps they were busy with news of the train derailment. They might be bombarded with thousands of calls from family of passengers--as well as passengers like us that now needed to make other plans. Plus all the other passengers at all the other stops the train would have made.

When 7:30 finally arrived, our train disappeared from the digital arrivals board. I joked with the others around me, "Did you see the train go by? I totally missed it!"

Almost immediately, my phone rang. It was an automated message from Amtrak explaining that there was a "service disruption" and that due to our remote location, there were no buses or anything available and that our train was canceled. They provided a phone number to call about questions or to reschedule, but it was the same number that the other thru-hiker had been on for 45 minutes before being disconnected, so I didn't put much stock in that for the moment.

I finally gave up waiting and headed back to the hostel for the night. The large group of 12 people who had arrived made a communal dinner, and after hearing that I'd likely be returning for the night, saved a little extra for me. That was nice. =) 

Back at the hostel, I tried rebooking new tickets for tomorrow night, but the Amtrak website wasn't showing any trains at all running through town, in either direction. And I checked the next several days, and no trains at all were now scheduled to run. That was ominous. I was basically stranded in East Glacier for an unknown period of time. I could try hitchhiking, but that's a long way to hitchhike back to Seattle.

I gave Amanda another call and told her the situation. "Think you can give me a ride after all?"

She said she had already thrown some stuff in the car when she got home from her concert and was prepared to drive out, just in case, and would be on her way. According to Google, she should arrive sometime tomorrow, Glacier NP was a 9 hour drive from Seattle non-stop.

And with that, my day finally ended. I spent an extra night in East Glacier.

The next day, I ran into Just Awesome who had just finished the trail that afternoon. He shook my hand, congratulated me on completing the Triple Crown, then said, "You got me! You totally got me!"

I was a little confused about what he was talking about at first, then he explained. "Those four girls you met... you told them to pretend like they had met me on the PCT. They did! And I totally believed them! I was scratching my head, trying to remember where I had seen them on the PCT, then they finally let me off the hook and told me that YOU put them up to it!"

I laughed. Yes, yes I did. =)

"So why are you still in town? I figured you would already be home by now?"

"I tried to leave," I told him, "but my train derailed." Being on the trail, he hadn't heard anything about the train derailment and I filled him in. 

It seemed to be the headline news across the country. The news even made it to Poland. I had sent a postcard to one of my Polish teachers saying that I planned to take the train home when I finished the trail, and after hearing about the train derailment, he sent me an email asking if I was okay. I don't think he had been especially concerned.... at the time I sent the postcard, I had no way of knowing exactly when I'd finish the trail or precisely what day I'd be taking the train, but he noticed that the timing was right and thought he'd drop me a message... just in case. But that's how I found out the incident had made it into the Polish news.

Anyhow, Amanda arrived later in the day after driving the 9 hours overnight and I finally had a way out of East Glacier.

We drove nearly non-stop back to Seattle. We stopped briefly to pick up one guy on a bicycle. I had met him at the hostel, actually, and he left earlier that morning riding toward West Glacier, but the wind was fierce and he decided he had had enough. So we piled him and his bike into the back seat and took him the rest of the way to West Glacier. We stopped for dinner, and for gas at a couple of places. 

It was after midnight when we arrived back in Seattle, and my hike was now officially done. I never imagined that just getting off the trail would have turned out to be an adventure in itself.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Thank you, Ryan! Wonderful photos and blog. I still have 500+ miles to go on W4F. Looking forward to the next, shorter trail. It CAN'T be longer than this!! I can't imagine you went an entire year without hiking. I'm impressed Amanda drove 9 hours straight to pick you up. That's devotion!