Remembering the Weyauwega train derailment 25 years later
WEYAUWEGA, Wis. (WBAY) - Thursday, March 4, marks the 25th anniversary of the Weyauwega train derailment. For nearly three weeks, the city was a ghost town as everyone who lived there had to evacuate.
It looked like the scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. “There was a glow over the city. Those first few days there was this glow,” recalls retired WBAY reporter Jerry Burke.
Only what was happening was fact, not fiction. “I was petrified the entire time that it was going to blow up. It scared the heck out of me,” adds Jim Baehnman.
Twenty-five years after the Weyauwega train derailment, Jim Baehnman, who was the assistant fire chief in 1996 and scene commander because the fire chief was on vacation, still can’t believe everyone survived. “It was an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he says, “But I’m so grateful that it went well.”
It was the early morning hours of March 4, 1996, when nearly half of the 81 cars from a Wisconsin Central train derailed while crossing over North Mill Street. Huge flames lit up the city sky as firefighters responded to the scene.
According to Baehnman “The view of the actual scene was not comforting by any chance of imagination. We had several fires going on in several different locations, and we assumed we could put it out, we just needed to get set up and do it.”
But as crews worked to put out the flames, they had no success. Fourteen of the derailed cars were filled with nearly half a million gallons of propane. The only thing they could do was let the fire burn. “The more information we got, the more concerned we were with the whole situation,” says Baehnman.
With major concerns over a possible explosion and the belief it could level the city, all 1,700 residents were evacuated, given just minutes to get out of their homes. Baehnman says, “We had people that left their wallets behind, people that left their medication behind, people that left their pets behind. All of those became problem issues when they left.”
Because, instead of being evacuated for a few hours, the residents were gone from their homes for nearly three weeks.
Now retired, Burke covered the derailment and its aftermath day after day for WBAY. He says, “I think it was the first week everybody was hoping and praying maybe they can go home after a week. Two weeks passed and we’re going, ‘Oh my God, this is never going to end.’ And I remember when we got to the 18th day, Terry comes up and he says, ‘I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag yet, but I think tomorrow we’re going to let them back in.’ And that’s exactly what happened, and I’ve never seen so many tears on people’s faces being able to come back home .”
Baehnman says the derailment does come up occasionally in conversation because it could have been catastrophic and taken Weyauwega off the map. An event has been planned to commemorate the 25th anniversary, but Baehnman thinks much like the 20 or so trains that continue to come through town, the community will keep moving on.
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