Monday, August 20, 2012

There But For The Grace of God....

With your heart pounding and your hands locked onto the steering wheel, you sit by the side of the road wondering how you managed to escape that close call with little more than a bad fright to show for it.

Have you ever heard someone say “If I’d left home just a moment sooner, I would have been the one who was involved in that accident (or what ever)?”  I’m sure that you can recall several times that you wondered the same thing.  I know I have.

On several occasions, I just narrowly missed being involved in incidents that might well have left me seriously injured, or perhaps dead.  After the fact, I would marvel at the series of events that would have had to take place to put me in the specific location, and at the exact time the incident took place.  

A few seconds, or a few meters can make all the difference in the world.  Some people can walk away from a close call and just shake it off without giving it a second thought.   Others may wonder if there wasn’t some invisible force, or intelligence that caused them to slow down, speed up, turn left or right; but in any case…, something caused them to take some small action that kept them from harm…., this time.

I’ve been aware for many years that I am blessed with the presence of a ‘spiritual guide’.  On several occasions, I’ve been steered away from immediate danger and/or been saved from my own folly.

There have been several such instances but, keeping with the ‘railroad’ theme of this blog, I’ll talk about two very specific stories that I (wasn’t) involved in.

The first one I’ll tell you about happened in 1968 on the Yale Sub, west of Boston Bar, BC.

I had been laid off in Jasper in mid-December and went to Vancouver to book on the brakeman’s Emergency Spareboard.  The Emergency Board would often provide more work for a young brakeman than he would see if he was set up on the working board.  This was due to some very convoluted union agreements that were in place in the Vancouver terminal at the time. 

I found myself in my bed in the Boston Bar bunkhouse…, fast asleep and expecting a call to take a westbound freight to Vancouver. Before going to bed, the operator told us that we would probably be called for a grain train to leave the Bar ahead of the way freight.  Usually, the way freight, a peddler that does all the line work, switching mills and moving track gangs on the subdivision would leave ahead of us, but on this day, there was supposed to be a road repair car to move from Boston Bar to Port Mann and it wasn't ready to be moved, so the grain train was going to be ordered first.

Hearing footsteps in the hallway outside my bedroom door, I woke and waited for the crew caller to knock on my door.

There was no knock, so I settled into my pillow and fell immediately back to sleep.

Sometime later, I heard footsteps once again.  The footsteps stopped right outside my door, and I lay in the dark, waiting for the knock.  When it didn’t come, I turned over to reach for the door knob to open the door, suspecting that the crew caller wasn’t sure about my room number.

There was no one in the hallway.  Closing the door, I turned back to my bed. 

Standing at the foot of my bed was a wispy, dark figure which resembled a man.  I was quite shaken by this, but the figure gave me a non-threatening gesture and, somehow gave me a feeling that I was going to alright. 

It took a while, but I eventually went back to sleep and slept until mid morning.  When I was finally called to go west, it was to deadhead on the CPR.  There had been a tragic derailment at mile 5, west of Boston Bar. 
The way freight crew had managed to convince the Chief Dispatcher that the road repair car would cause them too much delay and could be moved later in the day on a west bound freight.

CN road repair car.
Location, source and photographer unknown.
If you took this photo, please let me know for proper

The way freight quietly slipped away from the brightly lit station platform and into the early morning darkness and heavy rain on a late-winter day in the Fraser Canyon.  The road repair car, which would have been handled next to the engine, was left behind on the shop track.

Less than fifteen minutes after leaving Boston Bar, CN 4286 west, pulling a half dozen cars, a combine and a caboose, came around the sharp curve at mile 4.9 and collided with a very large rock that had fallen shortly before the way freight left the Bar.

CN Combine 7198 and caboose on service track at Port Mann car shop
Photo source and photographer unknown

The engine went over the edge and came to rest 75 feet below the track, hanging up on the rocks at the water's edge.

The engineer and fireman, Buckingham and McBeth were missing and presumed lost in the waters above Hell’s Gate, in the Fraser Canyon.

It was my twenty second birthday.

CN Way Freight similar to one derailed at mile 5 Yale sub.
note: road repair car immediately behind engine.
Rail photo John Eull

CN 4286
  • GP9, class GR-17u, built 1959
  • wrecked 27 February 1968 at mile 5 of the Yale Subdivision near Boston Bar, BC. The locomotive hit a rock slide and went into the Fraser River.
  • retired June 1968
Courtesy of Canadian National Railway Historical Association. (CN Lines SIG)

The second story I’ll tell you about has many similarities to the one above.

I had made my miles for the month of February, 1969 and family had gathered to  celebrate my birthday.  I had called the crew office on the evening of the 27th to advise them that I wouldn’t be booking on the spareboard until March 1st, due to a family gathering that included my birthday.  They said they wouldn’t call me unless they were in dire need. 

On the evening of the 28th, the phone rang and I was called for a drag east.  I asked who the crew was, and when told the name of the engineer, I declined the call.  The engineer in question was, in my opinion prone to run engines in a reckless manner and I swore to avoid working with the man at any cost.

I booked off on call, thinking I would book back on the next day.

At noon the following day, I called the crew office and booked on.  When I asked when I might expect a call, there was a lot of laughter in the crew office.

I was 48 times out, they said.  And I wouldn’t be going to work for a couple of days, at least.
You see, they said…,  engineer Curley Pegg and brakeman Paul Lawrence, who had replaced me on a short call, rode their engine over the bank and into the river at mile 39 on the Yale sub after hitting a big rock slide.  Neither was injured, but the second unit was on fire and would be lost.

I had just had my twenty third birthday.

Newspaper clipping provided by Clark Gray
The 9036 came to rest in a large, shallow back-eddy called
Dead Man's Eddy

CN 9036
  • F7A, class V-1-A-b, built June 1951
  • reclassified GFA-15b, September 1954
  • wrecked 28 February 1969 while leading SD40 CN 5011 near Hope BC; ended up in the Fraser River
  • retired 8 May 1969
Courtesy Canadian National Railway Historical Society (CN Lines SIG)

Those of you who have read all of the stories already posted on Caboose Coffee will know of a couple of other times when I was on the edge of disaster…, and made it out alive.

Now I want to take you ahead to 1990.

When the railroads accepted the Canadian Railway Operating Rules (CROR)  and abandoned the Unified Code of Operating Rules (UCOR), I was invited to take part in the program as a Temporary Rules and Training Officer, stationed at the Rules office in Port Mann.

Former Rule Instructor, Joe Klikach was my partner, as he had been brought out of retirement to conduct classes in the new rules.  There were two rule instructors assigned permanently to the office.  The junior instructor was Mike Maddison and the Instructor In Charge was Greig Henderson, formerly of Edmonton.

The job was intense, the classes full, the students nervous and the instructors worked long hours every day. 

Joe and I both understood that our jobs were temporary, so we knew that by Christmas, we would empty our desks; I would go back to “the tools”, and Joe would go back to his retirement.
Maddison was ambitious and would stay with the Rules Department as long as he could manage it.

But there was a deep unease in the office.  Greig Henderson was visibly not happy there and had several telephone conversations with his boss about conditions he found discomforting. 
One evening, after the classes had ended and all the students had left the property, I found myself alone in the office with Greig. 

He was sitting at his desk, his suit jacket hanging over the back of his chair.  His white shirt was open at the neck and his tie had been loosened.  He was holding a greeting card in his hand.

I was just about ready to leave for the weekend, and I wanted to have a minute with him to tell him that I felt that I had a good week and I asked if he had a good week too.

He looked up at me and motioned me to sit down in the empty chair near one corner of his desk.
When I had made myself comfortable, he handed me the card he was holding.  He didn’t say anything, he just handed it to me and gave me a small nod.  I opened the card and read the hand-written note inside.

It was a personal note…, a very personal note from his wife, Susan.  

She wrote words of encouragement, words of love and words of understanding.  Just before her name appeared at the bottom of the note, she wrote that she had tried to get comfortable in their new city, but her heart was in Edmonton and she wanted him to know that she wanted them to make their way back home.

Feeling like I had been allowed to look into their hearts, I handed the card back to him.  He silently took it from me and got up from his desk.  He walked over to a credenza nearby and opened a drawer, pulling out a small bundle of similar cards. 

All the cards he held in his hand were the same, he said.  His wife was very unhappy.  And so was Greig.  He was unhappy with the money he was being paid.  He was feeling trapped between his commitment to his love of the railroad and his family commitments.

When I asked him what he was going to do about the situation, he shrugged his shoulders.  He told me that he loved being a rule instructor, but he didn’t feel that his efforts were sufficiently appreciated by his superiors. 

What he’d really like to do, he said…, was to go back to the tools where he could run engines on the Wainright Sub, east of Edmonton.  Out there, he said, I can make more money and do it at sixty miles an hour. 

There was only one thing that was keeping him away from the throttle, he told me.  And that was a dream that he kept having, over and over.
In the dream, he was running a fast freight on the prairie and right in front of his engine, a tanker truck, loaded with fuel turned off the main road and pulled in front of his train.  His terrible dream always ended with him waking in a hot sweat, his breath coming in quick, short bursts.

Then he asked me if I believed in dreams.  I told him that I believed that a person could receive messages of warning, or strong advice in a number of ways.  I didn’t offer any advice, but told him that if he felt that the dream was a warning, he should pay close attention to it.

He rose from his chair and lifted his jacket off the back of his chair. 

Turning off the lights and locking the door, we went to our vehicles and went in separate directions, going home to our respective wives.

When the CROR courses wrapped up, we were hosted to a nice little dinner by Tim Urbanovitch, Greig’s boss.  With Christmas just around the corner, we all said our goodbyes and disappeared into the night.

Early in the new year, 2002 I learned that Greig had gone back to Edmonton, to run engines on the Wainright Sub.

The next time I heard about Greig was in the evening TV news.

Greig's worst nightmare had come to him in real life.  His train, running at track speed on the prairie hit a fuel truck that had left the main road and crossed in front of his engine. 

Every one on the engine was killed, as was the truck driver.

 CN SD40-2 5130 after the collision - Drew Toner photo

CN 5300 near Boston Bar BC before the wreck Photographer not known

CN SD40-2W 5300 after the collision - Drew Toner

I think, perhaps Greig Henderson, my friend, my mentor..., believed in dreams, and weighed those fears against his strong convictions of honesty and fair play; the two conditions he found in the cab of his locomotive.

The following was sent by Butch Whiteman, former CNR Assistant Superintendent, Edmonton.

This latest story about Henderson being involved in this crossing accident hits pretty close to home for some of us.

I don't think many people know the other peculiar aspects of it, but it was Henderson's first trip back on the tools here in Edmonton after coming back.

And I know the brakeman (bcc'd on here as you are) that pulled the plug on his telephone that night so he'd miss the call because he didn't want to go to work (and he missed a stat holiday ticket for doing so) which led to the next guy on the spare board to be called.  So he also says "there but for the grace of God go I".



Susan said...

I know that as your wife, I held my breath every time you took a road trip! Too many close calls...

Then with crazy drivers in the Vancouver area, you took risks there as well! I was stunned to see a school bus dash to beat you at the crossing one time.

I think they only see the machine and not the people inside who are the first on the scene when you hit a car full of people and kids.

Rock slides and such are happenstance...

I'm glad the only risk you take now, being retired and all, is a later than usual bedtime call!

The all suffering Wife

Lynnette said...

Great stories Bruce! You really did have a very exciting career when it's all laid out like this!

I'm enjoying every story I read....

LOU said...

SORRY I'M SO LATE, but I needed some time for recovering my composure,as this one really was HEART-FELT for me, as i'm sure it's remembering had to be for you both.

Anonymous said...

I knew this story well from the ex-NAR and CN men who I worked with on BC Rail. It still gives me the chills. Every new hire in the North heard a variant of it at some point.
Every time that I had a close call with a propane or sulfur truck at a grade crossing, this came to mind!
Something not mentioned here was the position of the automatic brake handle as found after the fire- we were all told this at BCR. AJT

Charles said...

There is yet another sad P.S. to the story about Greig Henderson, although I am telling it many years past the accident.

The conductor on that train, that night was Nick Lazarenko. Nick was an animated, confident railroader, dedicated to the job. (He had sort of a darker complection, perhaps he was Romanian, or some variant thereof; and his nickname was 'Black Nick.' Anyway, the younger brakemen & conductors out of Edmonton started to gripe to Nick, teasing him that he should take retirement, so that the younger guys could move up higher on the seniority lists. Nick retorted, somewhat indignantly, on more than one occasion, that "he had spent years trying to get to the top of the seniority lists (& thereby getting the plum runs), and he wasn't about to just retire because some young guys wanted him to!

This actually went on for a number of years. Nick had no intention of retiring anytime soon...he was enjoying his 'emeritus' status & easier pay.

Finally, he came to the point where he decided to make his One Last Final Run. The trip to Wainwright was uneventful. Family was waiting for him back in Edmonton, to congratulate him. The last run of a multi-decade career, was the fateful one that ended his life.

Robin said...

Thank you for sharing your memories! The 3rd person on the crew that day was my brother, Shayne Redford. Its been 25 years since the accident and yesterday I felt numb, the entire day was surreal. I posted on Facebook my anguish and resolution, however the only picture I was able to find of CN 5300, was on a t-shirt, available from Amazon. We were told at his funeral that Shayne was late for his shift, he had just paid his insurance. He made the "peace" sign as he waved goodbye and said something to the effect of "will catch you on the flip side". Godspeed CN and may we go in Peace.

Robin Leuschen/Bremen. SK

Bruce said...

Thanks for writing, Robin. I know that you must feel your brother's death was extremely unfair, especially when it would seem that the only one who was destined by fate to be on that locomotive at the moment the fuel truck pulled across the crossing was..., Greig Henderson, the engineer. It was his recurring nightmare that created that reality. I can't imagine the horror those men experienced in their final moment.

I feel your loss.