Personal experience and facts related to Alberton, Montana train wreck.
| One week after I turned forty on an overcast drizzly spring morning, April 11, 1996, a train wreck occurred and transformed my life forever. Early that morning, approximately 2:15 a.m., while my sons and I slept, the full moon ebbed, the snow melted and the river rose, an environmental catastrophe was in the making. An east bound Montana Rail Link train jumped the track while pulling boxcars full of lumber, flatbeds stacked with equipment, and tankers brimming with chemicals. A small imperfection in a steel rail dumped boxcar after boxcar into the depths of a western Montana landscape.
Jolted and dazed by the first booming impact, I laid in my bed clutching whatever I could grasp. Time after time, the silence boomed, our home rocked, the ground reverberated, and my heart clinched. My mind cratered into itself with thoughts of nuclear weapons, earthquakes, incinerated children, flattened forests, impending death, and the world swallowing into itself. My little house in the woods was “ground zero”.
My sons woke startled and confused with questions I could not answer. As the frame building swayed, they scampered from the loft. After what seemed hours of torturous noisiness and paralyzing fear, the inevitable silence commenced. I hugged the kids, grabbed the dog, and concluded that we were uninjured.
With my eyes wide, I tried to remain calm with the exception for the panic I felt in my every breath. However, just as we began to relax and make our way back to bed, the fumes penetrated and permeated the walls. Fumes that smelled like bleach woke up all the chemistry lessons I remembered about chlorine. Chlorine and water produce hydrochloric acid. Chlorine fumes with falling rain produce acid rain. The unknown finally triggered action. My sons and I ran to the car with only the clothes we wore while we covered our faces with cloths to keep from breathing in the fumes. We didn’t know what drifted in the air or the poisons we breathed. All we knew at the time was our eyes burned, we choked when we breathed, our skin burned with each raindrop that fell on us.
As if I knew what we were supposed to do, I drove to the local fire station. Surprised to see us, the firefighter on duty told us that he did not know anything about a train wreck, yet. We tried to explain what we experienced and witnessed. A moment later, the emergency sirens exploded with sound and the emergency radio cackled out the call for assistance. “Unknown hazardous material spill located west of Natural Pier Bridge. Do not respond.” You see, we lived in the “hot zone” and the risk was too great.
Approximately two minutes later, the smell of chemicals and the burning sensations followed us to the fire station. Our hearts beat faster, and I worried about our neighbors. Some of them lived as close to the train wreck as we did. Who warned them of the danger? Yet, somehow, our neighbors trickled over the bridge and into safety. The same way we came with the same looks of disbelief and their faces showed the same questioning fear.
On that day, more than 10 years in the past, April 11, 1996, a train carrying tons of chemicals, lumber, and equipment going to all parts of the state of Montana derailed near Alberton, Montana. Alberton is a small railroad town off Interstate 90 in the western part of the state. On that day, Alberton citizens woke up to plumes of gas and debris. Local volunteer firefighters from several communities raced into unknown dangers warning and evacuating. Firefighters who were ordered to stay out of the “red zone” but were on alert status waited for word of their own families. The “hazmat team” probed the dark early morning site of devastation. Rumors trickled in saying that little hope exists for people and animals remaining in the “red zone”. Despite the rumors, people and animals did survive . . . all of them.
Years later, I asked about the conclusions of the science behind the clinical research, studies, and testing in which victims and families participated. Recent science challenges many medical, neurological and behavioral practices.
Kaye H. Kilburn, M.D., a seemingly rebellious researcher and professor of Environmental Studies at University of Southern California offered reassuring evidence to those of us who were told, “it’s all in your head.” Chemicals spilled at the site, chlorine and potassium cresylate, effect respiratory and nervous system functions. In particular, brain damage measured through a variety of tests allowed the formation of the hypothesis, “. . . that neurotoxic chemicals target the brain’s limbic system . . .” and “The limbic system is where the emotions “live” and where such critical decisions, such as “fight or flight,” are made instantaneously. Consequences of limbic stimulation include disturbed cerebral processing and emotional over activity, including depression.”
Acceptance by the medical community of chemically induced brain injury is slow. Often medical staff refers to chemically damaged patients as malingerers, oversensitive, or mentally ill and unstable. The hypothesis that Dr. Kilburn promoted gives hope to those who quietly suffer.
Historically, acceptance of new ideas in the medical community is cumbersome. Acceptance in the lay community is difficult, too, as evidenced by past environmental research that restricted cigarette smoking in public places, the use of asbestos and lead-based paints, and quarantining tuberculosis sufferers. Big business disguised as the Good Samaritan resists changes that improve the public health in favor of the mighty dollar. Resistant change can take years. For example, banning asbestos took 75 years. Prohibiting smoking in public places took at least 50 years.
Even now, acceptance of the logic in Kaye Kilburn’s research and hypotheses is slow moving in the medical community. Neurologists and psychiatrists are resistant often using out dated testing methods. The general practice now of specialization in the medical field fails “the chemically affected patient” by compartmentalizing their care. Providing balanced medical, neurological and psychiatric treatment and testing of chemical victims helps increase acceptance and remove stigma. Defending “fringe or kooky” treatments for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome from the pooh-poohs of “modern medicine” allows patients the respect and care they deserve. Multiple symptomologies without obvious trauma are explainable, measurable and definable. When Dr. Kilburn’s hypothesis becomes the working medical model, then modernization of chemical impairment treatments will ease the chemically affected.
Until then, as Dr. Kilburn states, “Half a generation has ensued, so perhaps the existence of chemically induced brain injury will be accepted by 2010. Ironically, acceptance will be slower if many decision makers’ brains have been damaged, and it will be accelerated if damage has been limited to a few.”
Since that day in April, my children have grown to be successful in their fields. Being young at the time, they processed and assimilated easier than adults. To this day, I remember every detail and minutiae of information. To this day, I have flashbacks as I wander the chemical aisles in grocery or home improvement stores. Will the saga that affected thousands be forgotten. I don’t know for sure. But I doubt.