BLE member, two others, recognized for heroic actions

BLE Locomotive engineer Kerry Osborne, brakeman Joe Moloney and conductor Don Collings climbed aboard CPR train number 935-06 out of Mactier, Ontario, and headed northward shortly after midnight on April 7, 1997. Their four-locomotive consist was hauling two loaded cars and 46 empties. The weather had been unusually warm for that time of year and the snow was melting at an exceptionally fast rate.

That evening, however, a cold front blew in rain and sleet, and soon snow started to fall.

"The visibility was terrible!" said Osborne, a member of BLE Division 847 in Biggar, Sask. "We couldn't see more than 200 yards in front of us."

As the night wore on the conversation among the crew members turned to familiar topics of hunting and fishing. "At that time of the morning you're making small talk just to keep yourself sharp," Moloney explained. It was just after 2 a.m.

In northern Ontario, the CPR main line cuts through the rugged Canadian Shield, snaking alongside lake after lake, through rock cuts and across muskeg. "We had just passed through a section that called for a 40-mile-per-hour slow order when we noticed the slow order flags had blown down. So I notified the rail traffic controller," Osborne said.

No sooner had he placed the radio handset down, when Osborne saw what appeared to be a black wall about one hundred yards in front. All he could make out as he stood up at his window were two silver rails hanging loose in a big bowl. No ties, no ballast... and no earth. The two strings of 115-pound continuous welded rail floated across a 15-metre deep ravine. Eighty-five metres of embankment had collapsed.

According to a Transportation Safety Board of Canada review of the incident, a number of factors contributed to the embankment failure. However, most of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of an industrious beaver. The section of elevated roadbed that had collapsed crossed through a swamp spanning two rock cuts. When a drainage tunnel built to allow water to flow from one side of the swamp to the other was partially blocked by this beaver's dam, it caused the water level on one side of the embankment to rise much higher than usual. Finally the embankment, saturated by the unusually high water levels, gave way and took the roadbed with it.

"I just sat back down in my chair, turned and looked at Joe and Don and said, 'goodbye boys!'" Osborne recalled.

He had just enough time to throw the train into emergency before the lead locomotive fell over the edge, instantly applying the brakes to every car on the train. And down they went. "I hardly had time to see what Kerry was looking at," Moloney explained. "It happened so fast there was no time to be frightened."

The leading locomotive plunged over the edge, fell onto its side and ground to a stop. The traction motors fell away, severing power to the locomotive and instantly engulfing it in darkness. The locomotive's event recorder, similar to an airplane's black box, indicated the engine had quickly lost speed and that forward motion had ceased four seconds and 70 metres after the emergency brake had been applied. Moloney and Osborne were thrown against the front of the cab. Kerry found himself lying on his side in the right half of the cab. Moloney somehow managed to stay upright as they ground to a halt. Miraculously, both came through the disaster with relatively few injuries.

"I anticipated the rest of the train would pile up on top of us," Osborne said. But luck was with them when the three trailing locomotives and 13 cars that followed their engine into the void came to rest all around them. "I felt a drip on my neck and thought that water was starting to come in but then I reached back and realized it was diesel fuel," added Osborne, who initially feared that the locomotives were in water. Fire erupted on another locomotive and the crew members knew they had to get out quickly.

Collings, who had been sitting behind Moloney in the conductor's seat, hadn't been as fortunate. "I remember looking at Don just as we dropped over the edge, and he was just launched over the two seats. It was so violent," Moloney related. Collings ended up beside Osborne, unconscious. Moloney, trained as a first aid instructor, quickly checked Collings condition and immediately assumed the worst.

With their engine resting at a 90-degree angle, Moloney and Osborne scrambled to the top of the cab and climbed out of the only remaining door opening. Knowing it would be very cold, they managed to grab coats and a portable radio on the way out. With fire raging around them, Moloney turned to Osborne and said he wanted to get Collings. "No matter what, I knew we had to try to get Don out. I didn't want him to burn," he later recalled. "I grabbed his arm but I couldn't lift him."

With bare hands, Moloney began to dig away the frozen ballast that had piled in the engineer's front window. Meanwhile, Osborne, following standard emergency procedure, contacted the RTC to relay the seriousness of the accident and pinpoint their location. Finally Moloney cleared a path to Collings and began to inch him out of the cab, yelling his name over and over, hoping to get a response.

After being rolled onto his back, Collings suddenly made a gasping noise. "Well you should have seen Joe work when he realized we had a chance of saving Don," Osborne said. As Collings began to regain consciousness he yelled in pain, "Oh my leg, my leg." Moloney, realizing that Collings' leg was caught, returned to the smoke-filled cab to free it.

Collings was in and out of consciousness. He didn't know who or where he was. Osborne and Moloney carried him a safe distance from the burning wreckage. The heat from the fires kept them warm. Moloney took off his coat and laid it down for Collings, using his sweater to support the injured man's head. Osborne used his coat to cover Collings and Moloney's tuque to keep Collings' head warm.

"We made it," Moloney shouted, as the two men gave each other high-fives in triumph.

"We were all alive!" he said later with amazement. "We had made up our minds. We were going to beat it. In fact, I walked over to the engine and kicked it."

"It was quite a feeling," Osborne agreed.

Collings was getting colder, so Moloney once again risked re-entering the locomotive to find the first aid kit and the much needed emergency blanket. Covering Collings, Osborne stood watch over him. They waited for the first responders to arrive. A fiery explosion sent a shower of metal debris and a cloud of black smoke towards them, as Moloney adapted a metal door ripped from a locomotive as a shield. Collings , now more alert, cried out in pain.

Jim Beaudry, CPR signal maintainer out of Britt, was first on the scene with blankets, jackets and hats. "There was no moon, it was dark, the wind was howling and it was cold," he recalled. "I've been with the company for 20 years and I've only seen three or four derailments. This one was the worst. They were lucky to come out relatively unscathed."

Soon after, paramedics arrived and the crew members were transported to the hospital in Parry Sound. Moloney and Osborne were released from hospital later that day. Collings, who spent four days in the hospital and continues to recover from his injuries, said the guys "did a great job" getting him out of danger.

"They definitely deserve credit for everything they did," he said. "But that's what railroading is all about. You depend on your fellow employees in situations like this."

Nearly three years later, in Ottawa, both Moloney and Osborne stood in front of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada. Along with 44 other Canadians, they received The Medal of Bravery, awarded for acts of heroism in hazardous circumstances. A report on each incident was read aloud before the medals were pinned on the recipients.

"We had no idea it was going to come to this," Moloney said, when asked about receiving the award. "It's a tremendous feeling to be chosen."

"It's an unbelievable honour," agreed Osborne, who now often takes a second look for black holes when piloting his train through the same territory.

"But hopefully the ceremonies will bring this story to an end."

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada (right) speaks with BLE Locomotive Engineer Kerry Osborne. To the left is Conductor Don Collings. Both men received The Medal of Bravery, awarded for acts of heroism in hazardous circumstances.

 

2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers