Robert Radke is not used to waiting for a ride to an accident scene, but that’s what happened when the Hudson Bay primary care paramedic and other emergency responders had to wait for help to get to the scene of a train derailment in the early morning hours of July 4, 2018.
The call came at about 2:20 a.m. A ViaRail passenger train travelling from Winnipeg to Thompson, Manitoba, had derailed north of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan. The derailment was in an isolated area, where the rail line cuts through the northern Saskatchewan forest before heading into northern Manitoba.
When Radke and his partner Anna Janzen responded to the call for help and arrived at the Hudson Bay Health Centre, they were told there had been a train derailment, were given the number of passengers and crew on the train, and informed that at that time, there was concern some people were trapped. The paramedics headed north on Highway 9, eventually stopping about 24 kilometres from Hudson Bay where there was access to the rail line from the road – and that is where the waiting began.
This image shows where the train derailment occurred and the closest point with road access.
It took more than an hour for the first of three Canadian National Railway (CN) crews using hi-rails (trucks adapted to use the railway) to reach the ambulance’s location on the highway. In the meantime, the Hudson Bay fire department had arrived to wait with the ambulance for a ride to the derailment site.
Radke says they used their time waiting to develop a plan to prepare for whatever scenario they might encounter.
“You start going over your protocols, and what we have for equipment, just talking about what we will do when we get there and get prepared for the worst case scenario.”
Robert Radke (left,)and his partner Anna Janzen, both primary care paramedics with the Hudson Bay ambulance, were among the first EMS responders to arrive at the site of a train derailment in northeast Saskatchewan on July 5, 2018.
CN, which operates that portion of the rail line, brought three trucks. When the first truck arrived, they offloaded all the railroading gear and loaded everything they thought might be needed at the scene. Radke and Janzen, two CN employees and two firefighters got in the first truck and started down the rail line towards the derailment site. The other trucks were about five minutes behind.
“We weren’t really thinking about getting them out of the bush at that point – it was getting them out of the train,” Radke says. “We didn’t know anything about the scene or if the cars were lying (on their side), if they were going to be half under water, or on the tracks, or off.”
The journey took about 20 minutes to complete.
“We pulled up on the scene right behind the train, at which point we could see that most of the cars were still on the track,” Radke says. “We started walking up the side of the cars, trying to see what we could through the windows, but you couldn’t really see anything inside because of the height. So we were making our way up towards the front of the train; we could see the engines. There was one car that was in the water, and one car that was on the tracks but kind of crooked.”
One of the railroaders who had come with them opened the door and they got on the train. Moving towards the head of the train, they discovered the car in the water was the baggage car. The firefighters had gone in the other direction on the train, through the cars on the track, and they found all of the passengers in the dining car.
“We first came across the two conductors, and (Janzen) started checking them out,” Radke said. “I continued on to check out the passengers. When I opened up the door to the dining car, there were some camera flashes. I figured if there were cameras flashing, no one must be hurt, so that was a bit of a relief.”
With the discovery that no one was trapped and there were no life-threatening injuries, the next challenge was getting everyone back to the road access point.
It took two separate trips for the three CN trucks to get the passengers, ViaRail employees, and then the CN crews, paramedics and firefighters off the derailment site. Radke said the vehicles on the first trip back transported anyone who had any pain issues or was not feeling well. By the time the first group of people was back at the access road, there was an additional ambulance from Hudson Bay, along with one more that had come from Porcupine Plain.
Radke says there was at least an hour turnaround time between trips back to the access point, as the trucks had to reverse down the tracks, offload, and then coming back to the scene. When the CN crews came back for the second group, there was more excitement as they were told to load up quickly because the track between them and the road was starting to wash out in some places.
While the response and the lack of injuries were positives, Radke says there were challenges that they need to prepare for if there is a similar incident. In addition to the access concerns, communication was a challenge. They were in an area with no cell phone coverage and poor radio reception. They only had an RCMP satellite phone. It was used to notify the Hudson Bay Health Centre that there were only a few people with injuries and none were considered serious. Twenty-one individuals were transported to that hospital. All of the patients were assessed, treated for their injuries and were discharged from the emergency department. No patients required admission to hospital.
Radke says he had a previous experience with difficult-to-access scene, the major difference between this incident and that one being the number of potential patients – previously it was limited to one or two, and the ambulance was able to use their snow-bulance, which can carry equipment and be towed by a snowmobile or quad.
This was the first time the paramedics had ridden the rails with CN trucks, and had to prepare for as many as 21 patients without knowing how severe the injuries may be.
“The CN guys were fantastic to work with,” Radke says. “They knew what they were doing so we could do our jobs.”