How the 1989 train accident impacted Carroll College and how the campus and surrounding communities came together.
“A blast of light and sound suddenly filled my room. I sat up and turned toward my window. As I did, a second explosive blast occurred shattering the window sending a powerful wind through my room slamming the curtains against the ceiling. I screamed and dove under the covers. My thoughts first centered on covering up and protecting myself from flying glass.”
- Kathleen Hughes – Class of 1990Read her story
Just before 5:00 am on February 2nd, 1989, a train crew working near Austin, MT, halted Montana Rail Link train number 121 to switch its locomotives in response to issues with cold weather. The temperature was minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills approaching minus 70, and the train’s airbrakes did not fully engage1. Forty-eight cars from the train coasted down Mullan Pass back towards Helena, picking up speed on the way over twelve miles of track2. The runaway cars collided with a three-engine worker train in the rail yard near the Benton Avenue crossing directly adjacent to Carroll College, and nineteen cars were derailed. Students in the dorms at Carroll and nearby residents awoke at 4:48 am to the noise of the derailment and a small explosion from a propane-fueled heater.
Ten minutes later, a massive explosion ripped through Carroll College and the surrounding area when a tanker full of a then unknown chemical ruptured (later determined to be hydrogen peroxide), scattering debris from the train and damaging the College and nearby structures.
Guadalupe Hall experienced significant damage, and almost every window on the north side of the building shattered. The blast also damaged nearby transmission lines, the city lost power and exposed water pipes froze (and some burst) in the frigid weather. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured in what came to be known as “the blast”.
Drawing upon the Carroll College Archives, student newspapers, yearbooks, and other resources, this exhibit explores how the 1989 train accident impacted Carroll College and how the campus and surrounding communities came together.
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"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."
- Ed Noonan, recalling the blast
On February 2, 1989, Ed Noonan was Resident Director of St. Charles and Borromeo and lived on campus on 2nd Main.Read his story
“Leave the [blank] [blank] fish there!”
- Rock Heller giving a crash course in evacuation priorities, Guadalupe Hall, 5:15 am, February 2, 1989
Immediately after the blast, Resident Assistants gathered students in the hallway and took roll to ensure everyone was safe. Students later recalled how everyone remained “remarkably calm.”
Evacuation & Shelter
Students living in Guadalupe and St. Charles were initially evacuated to the bottom floor of O’Connell by Carroll staff. While firefighters were working to extinguish the fire that had started in the aftermath of the explosion, they were unable to safely approach a train car that contained burning polyethylene pellets, and were forced to focus on preventing the fire from spreading to the neighboring cars. Emergency responders soon became concerned over the possibility of a toxic chemical release from the derailment.
Around 3,500 Helena residents within a two-mile radius, including Carroll College students, were evacuated from the area by the National Guard. The National Guard took students from Guadalupe Hall and nearby residents (including a woman who had a train axle crash through the roof of her home) to Helena High School, the Helena Civic Center, and the National Guard Armory for shelter.
"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."
- Fr. Joseph Harrington, recalling the blastRead his story
Guadalupe Hall: Moving Out
When it was safe to do so, students later returned to campus to gather their belongings as Guadalupe Hall was no longer useable. They had to find new homes, some moving in with welcoming Helena residents.
“After spending the first few days with Patty Opitz (campus ministry) and her family at their home, on the day we could go back into our rooms to gather some essentials, I remember opening the door and just standing in the middle of my room in shock, not knowing what to do.”
- Jami Birkeland Grosz – Class of 1991Read her story
Damage at Other Areas of the Campus
Debris crashed through the P.E. Center roof, in the newly refurbished Library, and in other buildings on the north side of campus. The P.E. Center was deemed unusable after the explosion. The final NTSB report put the damage at $2.5 million.
Better than Ever
Classes were canceled for two weeks while the college assessed the damage. Just before they resumed, a Mass of Thanksgiving was held on 13 February in the Carroll College Commons. During Mass, then President, Dr. Francis J. Kerins, expressed his gratitude to the Helena community and said, “But supposed that we were to make Carroll profoundly better than ever, with the love Christ told us to show? We could set as a goal really to try every day to be kind, to be friendly, to be helpful—to be such a place and to be such persons that the world can speak of us as the world spoke of Christ’s early followers: Behold those Carroll people; see how they love one another.”
After the crash, the Helena and Carroll College communities lived President Kerin’s call for kindness and caring. Many helped ensure no one was missing, coordinated evacuation and relocation efforts, and provided clothing, toiletry kits, and other items to those who needed them. When classes resumed, residents of Guadalupe Hall were welcomed in local homes and other dorms on campus (often resulting in tight quarters). Physical Education courses were moved to donated spaces in the community. Local clinics and hospitals made space for the Dental Hygiene program, which had been housed in Guadalupe Hall.
The absence of panic in the moments after the blast; the quick action of resident advisors, fellow students, faculty, and staff; providing those in needs with clothing, toiletries, etc.; and working with the Helena community to support one another all show how Helena and Carroll people love one another.
Our motto, “Not for school, but for life,” encourages a thoughtful, choice-driven life. Carroll College’s response to the blast embodies our motto and illustrates how choosing to react calmly and take care of those around you builds community and fellowship. And, how a choice-driven life focused on empathy and humanity can conquer drama and chaos.