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Helena man recalls brushes with death during 1989 train crash, explosion

Posted at 8:03 AM, Feb 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-04 10:03:44-05

HELENA – When a runaway train crashed into a helper set at Carroll College 30 years ago, a Helena man was right on the path of the oncoming disaster.

“It’ll be with me the rest of my life. I think about it every day,” said Mike McNellis, who had been working for Montana Rail Link about two years on February 2, 1989.

On that day, McNellis and a co-worker were on what is known as a helper set. Their task was to switch to another track and get on the point of another train.

But a near-70 below wind chill that frosty morning meant making the switch by hand, with no idea a runaway train was headed their way.

“When the train hit, it thrust the east locomotive the engineer was on towards me, and I was right in the middle of the tracks stepping across and I kind of froze, looked both ways, and looked behind me — and there he was coming at me, so I ran off the track to the north,” said McNellis.

“Then I looked back and I could hear all the cars derailing right behind me, so I said to myself, ‘Don’t stop running or your wife’s going to be a widow,’” he said.

After about 15 minutes, the pair made their way to the Benton Avenue crossing where they waited for other crew members to arrive. That’s when Mike saw flames coming out of one of the derailed cars carrying hydrogen peroxide.

“Right after I said that we all looked and it exploded,” said McNellis.  “They dove under the crew van and it just threw me out in the middle of Benton Avenue.  Probably 15 feet in the air and I got up and took a couple steps and the second explosion threw me into the ditch.  And I just kind of landed in there and curled up and hoped for the best.”

As metal fell all around him, Mike prayed it wasn’t the end.

“It ain’t my time to go, I’m too young,” said McNellis.  “And I thought about Robyn, I don’t want her to be a widow after six months of marriage; I don’t have any kids yet, it’s not my time.”

Helena Train Explosion
When a runaway train crashed into a helper set at Carroll College 30 years ago, a Helena man was right on the path of the oncoming disaster. (MTN News photo)

With his ears ringing and his eyes and nose burning, Mike went back to the station and eventually to the hospital. With power out all over town in an era long before smartphones, it would be hours before he could reach his wife.

“I know she told me later I knew you were involved, I just knew it,” said McNellis.

As one of the few witnesses to events of that early morning, Mike took exception to some local media accounts of what happened.

“I remember just two days after, the Independent Record had ‘This was an act of God that it happened,’ and that frustrated me because I thought there’s no way this is an act of God,” said McNellis.

“I’m not here to bash anybody that worked at the railroad at the time, but things weren’t done right up in Austin with their train that came down and hit us,” he said. “They said we were moving and we knew it was coming; we didn’t know.  They said we tried to stop it, we were at a dead stop on our helper set.  And they said it hit us at seven or eight miles an hour. You can’t derail 19 cars and do that much damage.”

The incident left Mike with hearing damage he lives with to this day. He would work for the railroad until 1996 and over time would let go of any ill feelings against the company.

“Then I had two daughters. I thought, I’m still here I got a family now,” said McNellis.  “I can’t dwell on it anymore.”

But the events of that morning are never far from his mind. “I drive this Benton Avenue many times and it always brings it back,” said McNellis.  “Seeing trains, you know I think about it.”

Mike’s wife Robyn told MTN that after 30 years it was time to move on.  She said for a long time she was upset with Montana Rail Link because they never reached out to check on Mike’s well being.

She said Mike, who lost a brother in 1981, definitely had an angel looking over him that day.

-Tim McGonigal reporting for MTN News