'You don't really think about dying'
Published: September 12, 2008
Source: Elise Stolte, The Edmonton Journal
Engineer recounts night his train derailed after hitting 11,000-kg machine on overpass
EDMONTON - David Hackner ducked behind the instrument panel in his CN Rail engine as his 85-car train hurtled toward a huge piece of road equipment parked on the tracks.
"You don't really think about dying, you just think about all that train
behind you," he said Thursday of the accident on the Yellowhead overpass
"You think of all that just piling on top of you."
RCMP haven't found the person who stole the 11,000-kilogram dirt-packer, drove it across a farmer's field and parked it on the tracks 150 metres from a highway overpass.
The train hit the packer at 77 km/h. Hackner still finds it incredible that he and the conductor both walked away. He said he can sleep again now and no longer catches himself staring blankly into space. But he'll never be the same.
"I just want to walk off the property in one piece," said Hackner, 52, a 21-year veteran who is now just waiting for retirement.
His conductor that night was Trevor Wilcox, 21, who had been employed with CN Rail for a year and a half. Before that he worked at McDonald's and Blockbuster. Wilcox was used to the slower trains that chugged through his hometown of Terrace, B.C., at 40 km/h; he volunteered for the run between Edmonton and Wainwright because staff was short.
The trip to Wainwright on July 9 was uneventful. They passed a few hours sleeping in the Wainwright bunkhouse, then took over from the crew on Train 107. They left at 9:30 p.m. "It was a nice, fast train," Hackner said, one of the new ones.
Trains often travel 100 km/h along straight rail lines of the Canadian Prairies. Wilcox seemed nervous about the speed, Hackner said, and asked the engineer about collisions he'd had in his career. Hackner told him he hadn't hit anything larger than a few animals, small rocks and a few cars at crossings. No one was ever seriously injured.
Shortly after midnight on July 10, they reached the signal at Bremner, which told them: Clear to medium -- the track is free, but slow to 40 km/h before the next signal.
Hackner steamed ahead, full speed, at about 100 km/h.
"Then I don't know what happened. For some reason I just decided to knock it down 10 miles. I don't know why. I still haven't figured that one out."
Hackner figures if he hadn't, they might both be dead.
The headlights illuminated the machine on the tracks when they were about 30 car-lengths away. Hackner said he thought at first it might have been a cardboard box. "We were looking straight at the bridge," Wilcox said.
Both grabbed their emergency brakes.
"I just sat there," said Wilcox. "I didn't know what to do."
The impact threw him forward against the dash. He fell back in his seat, grabbed both armrests and put his feet on the dash as the train plowed ahead.
"I think the conductor yelled out, 'The overpass,' " said Hackner. "I just said, 'Oh oh.' I really didn't think we were going to hit the bridge straight on."
Wilcox could see gravel flying past the windows as the locomotive left the rails. Somehow, it stayed upright.
It continued straight over the 90-metre highway overpass and made it at least a 100 metres further onto solid ground before coming to a stop. The secondary locomotive fell on its side and a dozen container cars derailed, but none fell onto traffic on the highway below.
Only the bridge caught fire.
Wilcox and Hackner escaped down the broken stairs and out of the locomotive. Hackner got on his cellphone with Edmonton's rail traffic control.
Wilcox grabbed a radio but said he was so flustered, he couldn't remember which channel traffic control was on. He called 911, but hung up after he realized he couldn't give a location.
Then he grabbed an armful of flares and ran across a farmer's field to set them on the highway and the train track.
Then he stopped, took a deep breath on the side of the highway, and called his parents. "I was in shock. I think I'm really, really lucky. If we went over the overpass, we would have been killed."
Wilcox needed physiotherapy for whiplash, had trouble sleeping for weeks and was off work for a month and a half. Since he came back two weeks ago, he's only had shifts driving slower trains.
Hackner wouldn't stay away more than a week. "I didn't want to come bck to work and feel like I was victimized. I just wanted to come back and do my job."
Const. Wally Henry with the Strathcona County RCMP said investigators are still trying to find those responsible but haven't had new tips for awhile.
Crime Stoppers plans to tape a re-enactment this weekend and police hope that will convince people who know something to come forward.
The fact they both survived is "unbelievable," Hackner said. "For the locomotive to do the tight-rope walk across that bridge and stay on the track, that's almost like one in a million."