Faculty/Staff Recollections of the Train Explosion
It was bitter cold and way below zero when an explosion occurred just north of campus. Some thought at first that the PE center had exploded but it was worse. Fortunately it occurred at night and most students were in their beds. The women in Guadalupe Hall had their drapes pulled tight because of the extreme cold, this protected them from the falling glass when the windows were blown into their rooms. Also pieces of exploding rail cars rained down all over the campus and into the surrounding neighborhood. It was raining metal shrapnel, and there were even some pieces as large as whole wheels and other train parts blown around town. Every building on campus was damaged, some more than others. The campus had to be evacuated and everyone left safely. Even with all the damage, cold and dark and lack of electricity and broken glass all over the place, all buildings were cleared quickly and safely. Students and faculty living on campus that day were taken to the old armory close by for temporary shelter. Many buildings close to the campus as well as homes nearby were also damaged. Even the Cathedral so far away was damaged by the force of the blast. The campus had to be closed down for a time while the damage was assessed. Resident students and faculty had to be relocated in many cases and the city of Helena generously helped with that. I felt that Our Lady of Guadalupe was truly looking out for us all, because even with all the damage done and the many people affected, on campus and off, there was not a single injury reported anywhere. That February day will be something for which we now remember and can be thankful in prayer.
On February 2, 1989 I had a new 2 week old baby boy and was a young 30 year old mom. Our family was living close to Carroll College and the Benton Ave Cemetery, living about 2 blocks from the accident at the time. I remember being awakened by the explosion and thinking that the power station a few blocks away had blown up, as our power was gone. A few minutes later a police car was slowly rolling up our street with a bullhorn, announcing that everyone needed to evacuate their homes and that there were harmful chemicals in our neighborhood that had been released in a train crash. Luckily my in laws lived on Mt. Helena and had a wood stove & a fireplace for heat, but no power. We (3 kids,1 big dog and my husband) headed up the hill to stay warm, but not before we discovered that one of our living room windows had been blown open by the blast. It was not broken, so we shut it and opened sink cabinet doors, so that pipes would not freeze. We also lit a candle and placed it in a coffee can in the middle of our living room floor. I guess this was supposed to put out enough heat to keep pipes from freezing. It did work! The other thing I recall was that our 5 year old daughter slept through the explosion, and we had to wake her up to go. My husband had a business trip in Los Angeles to fly off to later that morning, so he left us to the frigid -30 degree temperatures and off he went to 80 degree Cali sunshine for the weekend. Not fair! Looking back we were very fortunate that no train parts were propelled into our house. I’ll always remember this event each time Erik has a birthday and we just celebrated his 25th.
My memory of that day isn't very exciting. I went to the office and manned the phone lines while the Registrar, Sr. Cara Lee Foley, and the other assistant in the office, Karen Armstrong, ran around campus trying to find rooms for classes and places for offices that had been in the PE Center and Guad. Classes and offices had to be moved around quite a bit until repairs could be made. If you know anything about classrooms at Carroll, moving classes around is excitement enough in ordinary times. I had my little Fiat running most of the day at the back steps because it was so cold. I don't remember exactly how cold it was but I think it was 30 below 0. Dr Kerins, president at that time, needed a ride home and my car happened to be the convenient one there so he folded himself up into that tiny little car and I left the office long enough to take him home. Others may write about the way faculty and staff worked one weekend to get students' frozen cars started after all this happened. The students were housed in the Armory and in private homes all over town. After it was all over, a male student and I were talking about the blast one day. At the time, Guad was all women. He had stayed the night in Guad and after the blast hit, he hightailed it up the hill to get to his dorm. He said he met a bunch of people running down the hill to help so he turned around and ran back down with them.
One of the axles of the train was blown up and over the whole campus then fell down through the roof of a little house that sat just across the street from Borro where the Fortin Ctr. is now. It landed just on the other side of a wall where people were sleeping. There was another story about a piece of the train that fell through the roof of another house somewhere and clear into the basement. The story goes that the homeowner got up in the dark to see what was going on and fell through the hole into the basement. I don't know if that story was in the paper or where I heard it.
Carol and I lived out in the valley in a trailer house. When we lost electricity our first choice would have been to come into town and stay with Carol’s mother. But without even checking we knew that in this bitter cold neither of our cars would start, so we didn’t attempt it. As it turns out, since Carol’s mother lived close to the college she had been evacuated for fear of poison gasses.
Without the furnace constantly blowing, our house was cooling down. We turned on the gas oven and stove burners – figuring that there was enough inherent leakage in the house that we wouldn’t suffocate. At the other end of the trailer, with our two-year old and newborn, we piled onto the waterbed. We figured that this was the best bet to retain the heat until the electricity came back on.
I wasn’t actually in Helena at the time of the blast, but my fiancé (now my wife) was. I was in basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri with the US Army back then.
I received a letter from her that opened with “We are fine, no one is hurt and we’re all okay.” And then preceded to talk about the bitter cold and the damage done to the college and neighboring houses. The entirety of the letter was written assuming that I knew what she was talking about – as the blast had made the national news. What she didn’t know is that I had no access to any kind of media in basic training, so I had no idea what she was talking about. I remember being confused and more than a little scared that something awful had happened to my soon-to-be-wife and her family, but I no idea what that something was. I spent the better part of a week wondering what had happened until I was finally able to call home on Sunday. That was when I finally got the whole story.
At that time, my wife Dee Dee and my oldest son, who was 3 weeks old at the time, and I were in the process of moving from California back to Montana. We were staying at my parents’ house in Butte for a few days before we were going to move into a rental we had reserved in Helena. On the day we were about to drive up, when it was nearly 40 below and everyone was telling us not to drive anyway, we got a call from my sister in law who said there was a train explosion in Helena and all the power was out and there was “a toxic cloud” over the city. The toxic cloud theory was not correct, but it seemed pretty bad, so we had to stay a couple days longer with my parents (which was difficult since we were chomping at the bit to get into our own place). Finally we drove up to Helena and even had to wait a day for a plumber to come thaw out the pipes in the rental home. I told my wife, who is originally from western Washington, if she could survive this, she could handle anything Montana has to dish out.
Mine is a happy story. It was my first year of teaching. Pam and I were expecting our first baby when the train blast hit. It woke us both up with the noise and blinding light. “Wow,” I said. I expected a gentle tap on my shoulder in the middle of the night to say we need to go to the hospital. I didn’t know baby time was signaled with such fanfare. I jumped out of bed and said, “I’m ready. I’ll get the car.” Now I know that every baby deserves such a grand announcement , but few get it. The baby didn’t actually come for another two weeks – this time rather quietly.
After the blast, Carroll was closed for 10 days. Since it was my first year of teaching (and I hadn’t realized just how much preparation teaching takes), I used the 10 days to get prepared way in advance. Since baby Hannah didn’t sleep more than 2 hours -- day or night -- for a month and a half, I never did have time after that to prepare for class, and was so grateful for the extra time the train blast gave me. Every cloud does have a silver lining.
On the morning of February 2nd 1989 at 4:47 a.m. I was blissfully asleep in room 328 of St. Charlie’s. The room was the perfect temperature as I was breaking the rules and had my dorm room window cracked to let a little cold air in. At 4:48 a.m. my window was thrown open with a blast that immediately caused me to sit up in my bed wide awake. As I looked toward and out the window I saw a mushroom type cloud that was white, then yellow, then green, then blue, and then darkness. My first thought was an electrical box exploded on a telephone pole. But that would not have caused my window to fly open. By now I could hear other students out in the hall awoken by the blast and wondering what happened. All power to the building and all the lights in the surrounding area of Helena were out. It made the situation confusing and filled the mind with questions. Individuals began to break out flashlights. At that point the rumor began that a boiler exploded. It seemed only 5 minutes had passed and Ed Noonan had reached our floor to let us know we would be evacuating the building. We were to get dressed and grab our warmest coats. We would be heading out into the darkness and wind chills that dipped to 70 degree below zero.
Everyone on Third South was lined up and marched down the stairs where we and many others were gathered like sardines in the lower level of O’Connell as we waited for emergency buses to show up and take us to either Fort Harrison or the Civic Center. The students all remained very calm and in some ways, for many, it was a great adventure. My friend Steve Braden said he grabbed only the essentials for a situation like this and had a box of twinkies and a six pack of Oly. From O’Connell we were loaded onto a bus and taken to the Civic Center where we sat and waited for more information about what was going on. I remember seeing a chunk of metal laying on the ground as I walked from O’Connell to the bus. It wasn’t until we were at the Civic Center that we began to get news of the train explosion. As morning turned into day more reports were coming in telling us of the damage that was done to Carroll College. It was at that time I began to hear talk of what a miracle it was that no one was hurt. I did not understand the truth of that miracle until I was able to walk through Guad Hall 4 or 5 days later.
Next we were being told that we would begin moving from the Civic Center into the homes of people in the Helena community. Steve and I decided to walk over to Fr. Tom O’Donnell’s home which was only a few blocks away. Fr. Tom took us in and we stayed at his home until we could return back to Carroll.
I was coaching football, strength coach and athletic trainer when this event occurred. I also owned a commercial cleaning company. I witnessed the explosion from my house; felt it as the percussion actually knocked me up against my house and broke my screen door! I was the first to the tracks with police directly behind me. Yes I was up early and all be it one mile away; heard the train cars coming, very loud when it’s that cold; recognized the speed of the track sound to be very fast for in town; and looked up and out to the intersection and heard and saw the collision with cars going up in the air and both explosions. We contracted cleaning for MRL and were cleaning the station daily. I had to fill out multiple reports and interviews about the incident and actually did the track boarder clean up for MRL after the fact. Also did much work at Carroll cleaning up after the mess, not only, but to include my company, vacuumed every book in the library.
I was a freshman in college out in Oregon. I remember it but wasn’t here in Helena. I guess a bunch a Carroll kids stayed with the Downs’ (John Downs). But the explosion did wake my mom up all the way out at their house on Colorado Gulch. The temperatures were also below zero so all the kids living in the dorms that faced Benton Ave had their windows blown out and no electricity because of the blast.
Kids were coming down to my dorm in Oregon to ask me again which town in Montana I was from because there was this big explosion... it was on the national news. I bet some of the staff at Carroll have some pretty wicked stories about what kind of damage the explosion did.
The morning of the BLAST!! We heard the loud crash then I saw a flash of light. The crash was so strong we were almost thrown from our bed. I got up to look around but could not see anything. The lights were out, we had no heat and it was getting very cold so we called our friends who lived closer to the tracks to see how they were doing. They also had no heat or lights. Our friends daughter’s birthday is Feb. 2nd so she packed up the birthday cake and family to come to our home. Some of the pieces of the train landed close to where they lived. My husband called his sister to see if we could come out to their house in Clancy. Both families bundled up for the drive to Clancy. We stayed there for the day and were able to come back to our homes that evening. (Bob graduated from Carroll College in 1976. Our daughter graduated from Carroll College in 2006.)
On February 2, 1989, I was Resident Director of St. Charles and Borromeo and lived on campus on 2nd Main.
- I remember bouncing out of bed by the first blast thinking it was an earthquake and then losing my balance putting my pants on with the second blast.
- The second blast came from the fact that the Montana Power transmitting station exploded knocking all power out in most of Helena.
- Although phone service was out, we had a campus line connecting RA’s and the Resident Directors. Within moments we knew things were bad at Guad. Half of the St. Charles RA’s went down to Guad and half checked on St. Charles.
- A decision was made to evacuate everyone to the bottom floor of O’Connell.
- Emergency personnel came through the building warning of toxic fumes.
- I went and checked every room in St. Charles and Borromeo, made sure all doors were locked and notified the resident priests to go to O’Connell.
- Buses came and took everyone to Helena High’s gym or the National Guard Amory which had electricity. Eventually everyone went to the National Guard Amory.
- Two students had gotten into a car and sped down the road sliding into a tree next to the library. One of them broke his arm and had to be ambulanced to the hospital.
- Watching CNN seeing graphics showing an explosive cloud over Carroll College.
- Since this was before cell phones, everyone was standing in line to use the one phone line at the National Guard. I remember calling my Dad who was watching the TV and was glad to know I was alright.
- Also on CNN two students decided to tell the world that their response was to grab beer and drink it fast as they were evacuated.
- By noon no students were left at the Armory. Community members had come to Armory and provided students with places to stay. Others had gone to the apartments of off campus students.
- Going to the Broadwater Athletic Club to shower and discovering I had put a shirt and pants over my pajamas.
- The next night there was a community meeting at St. Mary’s Church.
- Two weeks later everyone lined up in St. Charles and I assigned them to a new room. Male students were cleared off floors in Borromeo and St. Charles to make women’s floors for the students who had been living in Guad. Some students went to the YWCA, Shodair, and several motels.
- Faculty and staff helped students jump cars around campus and remove belongings from Guad. One strong image left from that was left from that was seeing the frozen aquariums.
In Montana you do not get snow days as a kid…growing up in Montana the only day school was closed for me was due to a flood at Rossiter Elementary School (we had one day off and finished the year on Carroll’s campus), Mount St. Helens volcano explosion- ash that covered multiple states…, and the train explosion of 1989- my senior year of high school! I’d prefer snow days!!!
When the explosion occurred, I lived about two miles from campus in an upstairs condominium. I was awoken and thought a truck must have hit the building. I immediately called my neighbor downstairs to see if something had happened. He told me that he was just getting ready to call me with the same question. I remember all of the faculty/staff meeting in a church to discuss how to proceed. We were relieved to know that no one had been hurt, primarily due to the installation of heavy drapes installed in Guadalupe the year before. Because of the frigid temperatures, everyone had their drapes closed. Those drapes caught most of the glass when the windows exploded preventing injury to our students. We were told that many of the hotels and community were helping students with temporary housing. I went to campus at noon to see if anyone needed a room and found out that all students had already obtained housing. The Donut Hole provided donuts to the entire campus. Faculty members were out helping students get their cars started. It was a time when, in spite of the tragedy, we all felt blessed that no one was injured or killed and the entire Carroll and Helena pulled together to make us all whole again.
I remember it had been below zero for a few days. We were in bed in our home which is 15 miles south of Helena. It woke us up and we thought we were having a earthquake. Stuff on our walls and shelves actually moved. I remember coming to town a few days later and seeing the wheels from one of the cars had been blown over the top of the campus and landed in a yard by Trinity and Henry Street. All the windows of Guad had been broken. The PE Center windows over the pool were shattered. For a very long time afterward the pillars in the St. Helena Cathedral had bands on them until they could be repaired because they were cracked. All sorts of structure damage was reported around Helena. It was a blessing it happened when it did. Had it been a few hours later that intersection would have been very busy and students would have been moving around campus when the metal came raining down on campus. It is amazing there weren’t any casualties.
I still have vivid memories of the days before the train wreck, the night of the wreck and the weeks to follow. I was living about 5 blocks north west of the Capitol and had my office in the house.
A few days before the wreck a friend came over and we mentioned how odd is was to be nearly 60 degrees above zero in late Janruary, with slush in the streets. I walked him out to his car a couple hours later and the temperatures had dropped to below freezing in that short time.
A couple of nights later, the sound of an explosion woke me and caused me to sit straight up in an instant. I remember the reverberating sound of the blast immediately being followed by a flash. My first thoughts were that a missile silo had exploded. The power went off. My next thought was wondering if a power transformer on an electric pole near the house had exploded. I looked out the windows saw no lights on in any direction. We had a water bed which held its heat for the rest of the night. For heat, we had an ancient boiler, a gas fireplace, gas range and oven – all could be fired without electricity. We were able to keep the house above freezing, cook and warm ourselves with hot drinks while the power was off.
The morning after the wreck state employees at the capitol complex were told they could go home despite the fact that many still didn’t have power and heat at home. We invited people to come to our house and there was a regular stream of people coming in the front door with fog forming each time the door was opened – the cold outside air meeting the moist air indoors. Before dark, most of the people at our house received news that their power had come back on again.
Luckily, our power came on again relatively quickly. Others, especially in the Rodney street area were not as lucky. Many people frantically called and searched around town for alternative power sources to keep their pipes from freezing. There was way more demand than supply. For some the outage lasted for days causing their pipes to freeze and extensive water damage. In the following months many people purchased gas powered electric generators to protect them from future power outages. They likely never have had another outage and have not used them.
One story I would share is a description of the event relayed to me that stated "First hell froze over, and then it blew up!"
I went down to what was then the National Guard Armory to pick students up and bring them to my home. I remember seeing all the girls wrapped up in their blankets, but not one had picked up their purse or anything else. The most amazing thing was that none of the girls were injured, despite walking through the broken glass and all in the dark. The resident assistants did an amazing job.
It is hard to believe it has been 25 years since that amazing morning when I was awakened in the Valley by the sound that echoed from Carroll College. I was teaching in the Theology Department at the time and I remember grabbing clothing and supplies to take in to provide for the women who were now homeless as a result of shattered windows and frozen rooms. I was so grateful for the solidarity that everyone showed, taking the girls in and helping out. Helena is a wonderful place for community and care. Needless to say, my classes were cancelled and the memory remains with me, including the pieces of the train that had been hurled up onto the campus. Phenomenal. Many blessings that no one was seriously hurt.
I was 13 when the train exploded, we were living on the west side of town. It knocked the heat out in our apartment so my family had to go to my grandfather’s because he had a wood stove. It was frigidly cold….when we got to his house up below Mt. Helena, his big window which faced north had a huge crack through it from the explosion.
I was a student here at the time. I think the funniest was the newspaper headline that said “Ground Hog blown back in hole, Winter to last forever”
I was new here and it was my first Montana winter. I couldn’t believe the schools were open. I think our high was like twenty below. It took the explosion to actually close the schools. I don’t think they have closed since then.
What was that? A sonic boom? When I got to the living room window my mom was already there. My parent’s house is nestled 10 miles from town in the Helena valley. Looking south, toward town, we usually would see the city lights from East Helena, including the old smelter stack lights, then a black gap where now exists the auto malls, then all of town, but this time we saw town was completely black. The weather had been very cold for a few days and that night even colder. Not knowing what the noise was, what could have caused it and just guessing the power went out because it was so cold and no news media to turn on and find out, I went back to bed. I worked at Bergum Drug by Safeway and upon arriving to work that morning there was no power and it was freezing. I worked the day in my coat, gloves and boots and had to manually cashier and hand write receipts if needed. The store was not flooded with people but those that did come in came in for bottled water, flashlights or batteries; it was the pharmacy that was keeping us open. By the time I got off work, my ’79 Subaru wouldn’t start so I had to call my dad for a jump. It was freezing and the wind was whipping and I couldn’t wait to get home to warm up by the wood stove. I was 19 years old.
Please Keep Sharing
We appreciate all the stories and recollections that have been shared with us about the 1989 train explosion. Please continue to share your memories with us and we will add them to the collection here. Email your stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.