Hikers witness fatal White Pass crash

When Darryl Froese and Julie Cossette saw the train coming, they did what any sane person would do: they got off the tracks and waited for it to pass.

When Darryl Froese and Julie Cossette saw the train coming, they did what any sane person would do: they got off the tracks and waited for it to pass.

It never did.

The White Pass and Yukon Route diesel locomotive derailed, killing one man and injuring three others.

Bruce Harder, 45, a White Pass heavy equipment operator and well-known Carcross volunteer, was fatally injured.

Three other White Pass workers were also hurt in the crash.

“Bruce was just a wonderful man,” said White Pass president Gary Danielson.

“His loss will be felt far beyond our White Pass family, and by many others, I’m sure.”

Harder was the Carcross fire chief and head of search-and-rescue, said Danielson.

“He was very well known in his community and throughout the area.

“And his wife is the emergency medical dispatcher (and) first responder in Carcross.

“It was a very difficult situation. She was on site.”

The train conductor, Lee “Toogie” Hartson Jr., from Skagway, was medevaced to hospital in Anchorage for surgery and the engineer, Jeff Ruff, was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital, he said.

The other injured worker, heavy equipment operator Neil Plested from Carcross, was released from hospital Monday, he added.

The young couple that discovered the wreck had just spent 2.5 days backpacking the historic gold rush route.

Froese and Cossette were hiking along the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad to Log Cabin, near the Alaska border. There, they planned to catch a shuttle back to civilization.

Sunday morning, on the exit spur a few kilometres south of Bennett Lake, a German couple had joined them. The foursome ambled along the tracks, against private property rules that are routinely disregarded by hikers departing the Chilkoot Trail.

It was about 12:40 p.m. when the group saw the eight-car train coming in the distance, winding its way along the narrow-gauge track, said Froese.

“We were about four miles from Log Cabin,” said Froese, who, like Cossette, is a Whitehorse local.

“We got off the tracks to let the train go by.”

They heard the train approach. Then Froese heard a loud screeching from around a bend just ahead of them, about 200 metres down the track.

 It only lasted a second or two. They didn’t hear a crash, but the train didn’t come around the bend.

The hikers waited for a minute. Then they investigated.

The first thing they saw as they rounded the corner was a weird cloud — they thought it was steam or dust. They’d seen a plume coming from the diesel locomotive’s smokestack.

But then they saw the orange car lying across the tracks at a perpendicular angle.

The hikers dropped their packs and jogged closer, finding the green and yellow White Pass engine on its side on an embankment. Its undercarriage was torn away and diesel fuel was spraying from a pierced tank.

“It was just gushing diesel,” said Froese.

“I said, ‘We’re not staying here, it’s way too dangerous, that thing could explode.’”

Even if the wreck didn’t explode, they would be covered in diesel if they got too close and they weren’t carrying gear to handle flammable liquids and burns, he said.

But the hikers knew at least one person must be trapped within the wreck.

In fact, there were four.

But the hikers didn’t hear anybody respond as they called out, approaching the wreck as close as they dared.

“The electricity of the train was not shut off,” said Cossette, who has certified wilderness first-aid training.

“It was still on.”

They noted where the tracks had buckled and broken beneath the train.

But with a small cliff on one side of the wrecked engine and diesel pooling on the other, they could only safely search for survivors on one side, said Froese.

They searched for five minutes, then decided to go for help.

The German man, being extremely fit, ran down the tracks towards Log Cabin, still wearing his pack, said Froese.

The others followed, their pace energized by the adrenaline of the crash scene.

It wasn’t long — a few minutes, said Froese — before three railroad technicians in a small car sped past on its way to the crash site.

The rescuers had already been notified of the crash.

White Pass trains are equipped with a handset that can send a distress signal with a few clicks, said Danielson.

“There’s a way of notifying an emergency without speaking too many words, by a series of clicks on the radio,” said Danielson on Tuesday.

One of the crew members was able to place the call, he said.

“He was very badly injured.”

Danielson was still in a state of sad bewilderment while fielding phone calls from the company’s Skagway offices two days after the crash happened.

But he was pleased with the speed of the emergency response to the crash site.

“That day, our roadmaster was going in to Lake Bennett on other business and he was following the work train in a motorcar, and he heard the call and immediately moved forward as fast as he could.

“He was there, literally, within minutes of the accident.”

Meanwhile, the White Pass dispatcher activated an emergency management plan.

The first group of technicians was followed by a team of paramedics and another team of firefighters, even before three helicopters began to arrive.

The train had been loaded with gravel for use at the Bennett terminal.

Danielson wouldn’t say if he thought the cause of the crash might be speed or too much weight on the rails.

“I really can’t comment because I have no idea.”

Investigators from the federal transportation safety board arrived at the crash site Monday, he said.

Transport Canada won’t comment on an ongoing investigation, said spokesman John Cottreau.

“The investigators are starting with a clean slate; they don’t have any preconceived ideas,” Cottreau said Tuesday.

“They’re going to take measurements and photographs and conduct interviews, and they’re going to try and determine the causes and factors that led to the occurrence.”

Such investigations normally take two days, he added.

White Pass operations into Bennett are shut down for the time being, until the wreck has been cleared and the track repaired.

Nothing like this has ever happened in White Pass’s history, said Danielson.

There was an accidental fatality in 2000 during a maintenance job at one of the company shops in Skagway, but never a derailment causing death, he said.

In the transportation industry, crashes are expensive.

Clean up and repair cost a lot, and customer confidence is easily shaken.

White Pass could suffer losses of bookings for next year, when the company’s expansion plans to run trains in to Carcross are scheduled to begin for the first time in years.

But Danielson isn’t worried about money right now.

“This has no effect on our present business,” he said.

“Where it has an effect is within our company, in our personnel.

“We all feel pretty shaken by the experience right now.”