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IA town cares for derailment survivors

BY LARA BRICKER | Nodaway, Iowa | March 19, 2001

Residents in this small, rural community were the first on the scene of a train derailment along tracks through their town, which left one woman dead, 90 injured and the rest bruised and disoriented early Sunday morning.

The 210 people left stranded in the Midwest heartland was almost double the population of Nodaway, a small community of 127 residents, but that didn't stop residents from climbing out of their beds and going out to help. Ten of the 16 cars in the Amtrak passenger train traveling from Chicago, IL., to Emeryville, CA, were derailed at 12:50 a.m.

The train held 195 passengers and 15 crewmembers. One woman was killed and four others were seriously injured. The train derailed at a location that is about half way between Des Moines, IA and Omaha, NE.

Residents in Nodaway often come together and help in times of need, Town Clerk Kay Spring explained. Soon after the train derailed, farmers headed to the tracks with their pick-up trucks to help transport people away from the train. Most were taken to the Nodaway Community Center and Fire Department, where they were given warm blankets and hot food.

"That's the way it is here, any disaster or anything that happens, the word gets out and everybody's there," Spring said. "We're a small town and you know each other. After it was over, we had more people say, 'If I had known I would have helped, call me.'"

Luckily, there was still a freezer full of food in the Community Center that was left over from Friday night bingo. "We used hot dogs, polish sausage, cheese, I think we had ten dozen eggs, they made all kinds of sandwiches," Spring said. "We felt pretty good that we were able to help people out."

After the passengers were taken to the Community Center, the next step was to bus them to Omaha, where the Heartland Chapter of the American Red Cross and Salvation Army's Western Division Office both continued their support with food, clothing, housing, counseling and medical attention.

The Adams County (Iowa) Sheriff's Department was one of the first to arrive and helped transport the severely injured passengers to hospitals in Des Moines and Omaha. Both the Red Cross and Salvation Army sent disaster workers to Nodaway -- a 90-minute drive -- to aid with the initial response. The Red Cross had more than 25 volunteers helping injured passengers find medical attention, change wound dressings, and find their hotels as well as providing vouchers for food and clothing, according to JoAnn Merrigan, the spokesperson for the Heartland Chapter.

As of Monday morning, the Red Cross had distributed over $4,000 worth of vouchers for clothing. Red Cross volunteers provided most of the passengers with mental health support. Merrigan spoke with one teenage girl who was extremely shaken by the situation and was relieved to be reunited with her 13-year-old brother.

The timing of the derailment seemed to increase the shock for many of the passengers. "Everything was completely pitch black, it's a real ordeal," Merrigan said. Susan Eustice, the Salvation Army's Western Division Office Spokesperson echoed Merrigan. "Everybody was affected, they were very disoriented and then to get out (of the train) and be in the absolute middle of nowhere," Eustice said. "Many of them had never heard of Omaha."

Raydeen McGowan, the deputy director of emergency services for the Heartland Chapter, explained that the victims were housed in three hotels in Omaha and most of them had made travel arrangements and moved on by Monday morning.

McGowan said the majority of the passengers she talked with simply needed a hug and someone to listen to them. "Some people are very shaken up," McGowan said. "I think just having people to talk to and tell their stories to helped." While her chapter has assisted with massive disasters including devastating floods, the victim's shock is similar, McGowan explained. "It's certainly an intense situation because you are dealing with people who have had a real traumatic (situation)," she said.

The emotional aspect of the derailment really hit home for several of the Salvation Army volunteers when a woman they were helping check into a hotel passed out in front of them. "It's not so dissimilar from other disasters," Eustice said. "They're upset, they're scared, they're disoriented, they're looking for their way home. And a lot of them were parents looking for their children."

At about 3 p.m. on Sunday many of those who had been on the train received their luggage. "They were so appreciative to have those things like their shoes," Eustice said. The hotels were not able to keep up with the food demand and at one point, Salvation Army volunteers went out and ordered lasagna for 150 people from a local Italian restaurant.

Both the Salvation Army and Red Cross were told that most of the passengers would be moving on to their original destinations by Monday evening, but they were prepared to help out as long as needed. "We're just taking care of the human need," Eustice said.

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