Local, first-hand account of harrowing derailment

Champlain Valley Union High School graduate Jacob Grasso was on the southbound Amtrak Vermonter when it derailed at about 10:30am after hitting a rockslide near Route 12A and Bull Run Road in Northfield on Oct. 5. He took these photos of the event with his cell phone.
Champlain Valley Union High School graduate Jacob Grasso was on the southbound Amtrak Vermonter when it derailed at about 10:30am after hitting a rockslide near Route 12A and Bull Run Road in Northfield on Oct. 5. He took these photos of the event with his cell phone.

The coach car began to shake like the conductor had slammed on the brakes and the train was readjusting on the track, Shelburne native Jacob Grasso said. Dust engulfed the train so he couldn’t see out of the windows. He could only hear and feel the train crashing along and hope he and his fellow passengers would be alright.

Champlain Valley Union High School graduate, Grasso, 22, was just about to nod off to sleep after a busy weekend as his train derailed. This Amtrak Vermonter route begins in St. Albans and ends in Washington D.C. It derailed at about 10:30am after hitting a rockslide near Route 12A and Bull Run Road in Northfield Oct. 5.

Five cars left the track, including the engine and a coach car that landed in a brook along with the train’s diesel fuel. Ninety-eight passengers and four crew members were on board at the time of the derailment. Several were injured, no one was killed.

Grasso graduated from the University of Vermont in May and now works in Newark. He was traveling home after visiting friends in Burlington. Other passengers were on board as part of a fall foliage tour. The train had just made a stop in Montpelier and was headed to Randolph.

When the dust settled, Grasso could see one coach car ahead was pushed up into an embankment. Another plummeted far down into a stream. “We were all very scared for the people who were on the two cars in front of us,” Grasso said.

In that moment he wasn’t even sure if he was safe. He was unsure if his teetering car would slide further down the embankment, or catch fire. Grasso’s first instinct was to get off the train, but the doors were jammed shut. Luckily, he and other passengers, who he now considers dear friends, managed to get an emergency exit window open.

They escaped unharmed. “Once everyone got out of the train, we were stuck in between the boulder on the side of the track that the train hit and part of the wreckage from the train,” Grasso said. “In order to get out and onto the other side of the tracks we had to get back on the train and go through a car further back that was less damaged.”

Emergency services arrived shortly after the crash. Grasso rested a short distance down the tracks in the front yard of a private residence. “There we were able to wait and collect ourselves until we were taken by bus to the Norwich campus,” he said. “We were given food, water and access to computers with internet service for a few hours until we figured out the rest of our trip.”

Governor Peter Shumlin met with the stranded passengers at Norwich University the day of the incident. Grasso was impressed the Governor cancelled his plans and made the trip. “He called it an act of nature which I know it was, although I am curious about what sort of technologies are out there to tell if something is obstructing the track,” Grasso said.

Charlotte Volunteer Fire Department Chief Christopher Davis said the unfortunate and natural occurrence of a rock slide on the tracks does point out that no transportation system is without risks and inherent dangers.

AP reports New England Central Railroad, the railway in charge of that portion of the tracks, has had 54 accidents since 2006, including 14 derailments. Out of those accidents, three people have died.

Residents in Charlotte, as well as other communities along Vermont’s rail network, have raised concerns related to VTrans 2015 State’s Draft Rail Plan, Davis said. “Had this most recent incident involved a freight train with tank cars full of oil, gasoline, propane or chlorine, the present situation could be quite different,” Davis said.

Davis was among the first responders when the 1984 derailment occurred along the Winooski River in Williston that killed five people. He’s hopeful that as more citizens, politicians and state agency representatives become familiar with the deficiencies in the safety and security provisions outlined in the state’s rail plan that changes will be made to place the safety of Vermonters who live and work near or on the railroads operating in Vermont ahead of increasing freight and passenger train volumes and speeds.

Davis also serves as the Emergency Management Director in Charlotte. He said the rail plan, as it is presently drafted, is very weak in areas related to:

-Protecting public and private railroad crossings.

-Providing secure rail yards to store hazardous tank cars when they are not being moved, avoiding the present practice of leaving empty or full hazardous material tank cars near villages, town centers or critical state infrastructures like electrical substations, hospitals or health clinics.

-Consideration for comprehensive planning, training and properly equipping Vermont’s emergency responders to deal with the types of rail related hazardous material spills and fires that are occurring almost monthly in other parts of the US and Canada.

-Details on how the liabilities and costs of a clean-up after a spill or fire will be born and by whom when these event occur in the future here in Vermont.

-The impact of expanding rail traffic as proposed on Vermonters, their communities and the environment.

“Since the railroad tracks and infrastructure in Vermont belongs to the state and its citizens, there is no reason that we must defer to federal regulations that permit these practices that place Vermont’s citizens at risk with little benefit from the 69 percent of the present and future freight traffic that is passing through Vermont to other areas of the US and Canada,” Davis said. “We can make this draft rail plan a better model for expanding rail transportation in and through Vermont in the future. We cannot afford to leave it as drafted.”

Citizens for Responsible Railroads member Lydia Clemmons of Charlotte agrees with Davis. She is thankful there were no fatalities or serious injuries to people, property or natural resources with the recent crash in Northfield, she said. She had hoped that before Amtrak Vermonter operations resumed, actions would have been taken to increase safety along the rails.

Clemmons also has concerns about new cargo coming through town with the state’s new rail plan. “A large percentage of this freight will be flammable and explosive fuels, toxic chemicals, including ethanol, liquefied petroleum gas and chlorine gas,” she said. “Had the Northfield derailment involved a train carrying any of these high-hazard materials, this might have been an unimaginable tragedy. We are very worried that many families and communities along the rails are completely unaware of the state plans underway for Vermont’s rail network, and will find out when it is too late to change anything.”