Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
1702 1/8 -- 2017 1/8: Plow Extra One
The bawling of the Rock's air horn may have been beautiful to Fred Linder in the middle of the afternoon, but he was positively ecstatic to hear it in the snowswept darkness. The long blasts on the GP-7's air horn set off a chord when Archer chimed in with the Milwaukee's higher-pitched, and was accompanied by a chorus of fire and ambulance sirens with a train-long light show.
Piggyback on Plow Extra One's flatcar consist, help from Spearfish Lake had finally reached the stricken village.
Linder was just coming out of the school on his way back to the fire when he saw the wonderful sight. The train was just slowing at the switch to the passing track, so he roared his snowmobile down to the head of the train and clambered up into the Rock's cab, just as Penny's voice came over the radio to tell Bud the switch was clear. Bud had the power notched up on the Rock and had the train moving before he realized that he had company.
"How's it going up here, Fred?" Masterfield asked.
"We've been hanging on, but I don't think it can last. I'm damn glad you're here. I was beginning to think you guys had gotten lost."
"We had engine trouble," Bud apologized. "And then, it took us a hell of a long time to get loaded."
"How long is it going to take you to unload?"
"Not long now," the engineer replied. "We've got to back up the other track and get behind the consist, so we can push the head of the flats up to the ramp." With that, Bud took the power off. The train slowed, and he called into the VHF, "Walt, have Frank cut off aft of the way car."
"Will do," the VHF speaker squawked.
"What's the situation?" the Sepearfish Lake chief asked. Linder gave his colleague a brief rundown on the battles for the pulp yard and the warehouse, and talked for a moment about the problems developing in keeping the fire from the flammable paper plant and the downright dangerous fertilizer. While he was doing this, the engine lashup was freed from the rescue consist. Bud pulled ahead further through two switches back to the main line, then backed down past the waiting fire equipment to the rear of the train.
"What do you want us to do?" Masterfield asked.
"I think I want all of you guys up on the pulp yards. We're going to be losing ground soon up here. If the warehouse goes the rest of the way up, we're going to be in real trouble. Walsenberg isn't supposed to be far away, and we'll put them on that when they get here. We've got most of the Hoselton people here, but they've got no equipment, so you're going to be in charge on the north side. The big problem with the yard fire is that the wind is shifting on us, they're going to be handling ammonium nitrate out in the open over at Northern Fertilizer. If an ember from the pulp yards gets to that stuff, we've got real trouble. Before I forget, tell your guys that if they get downwind of the hopper cars between the shed and the yard fire to wear face masks. I suppose Bud told you about that."
"Yeah, he did," Masterfield replied. "My guys already know about that. The civilians we brought don't have face masks, most of them, but they'll be safe enough over at the school."
"That's the other problem," Linder said. "With the wind shifting, she school's not so safe any more."
While the two firemen continued to talk tactics, Bud powered the GP-7 forward until the couplers on the plow and the last car closed, then increased the power. The rescue consist moved forward slowly; at the far end, Frank Matson rode with a radio in hand to guide the train the remaining distance to the Warsaw piggyback ramp.
Firemen and other passengers had been out on the flats for several minutes now, loosening the chains that had tied down the vehicles for their trip up the railroad, and the train had hardly stopped before a light-flashing procession, led by a big, orange V-blade county snowplow started making its way along the narrow flatcars, over the ramps from one to the next, and then down the piggyback ramp to Plant street.
As they left, the cab of the Rock emptied too, as Masterfield and some other Spearfish Lake firemen left to hop a ride on one truck or another for the short ride to the pulp wood fire. Linder stayed behind as Penny climbed back up into the cab and asked, "We heading right back, Bud?"
"Can't stay here long," the engineer replied. "Otherwise, it'd drift up behind us."
"I don't want you guys to leave just yet," the fire chief broke in. "We've got a couple of problems here."
Right now, Bud was in a mood to give Linder almost anything he asked. "What do you need?" he asked.
"Couple of things. The easy one is that I'm worried about the hopper cars over at the fertilizer plant. If this thing gets away from us, and there's a good chance it still can, the fertilizer plant will be in trouble. Getting those hopper cars out of here will be just that much less of the stuff we'll have to deal with."
"No problem with that," Bud agreed.
"Right then. Take all of them except for the couple they're unloading. They're going to reload those with ammonium nitrate. I really want to get that shit out of here, but I guess that'll just have to wait until later."
"We'll be back," Bud said. "We've got the Albany River department to bring up here, too. I'd guess that we'll be back in four hours, maybe a little less if the loading goes OK this time."
All of this time, Linder had been wrestling with his really major concern, as if not talking about it would make it go away. Now, he had no choice. "Those hopper cars you tried to move earlier are still puking out all that toxic shit. They probably will for days. All of the people we evacuated from town are over at the school. It's been safe there so far, but now the wind is shifting. If it shifts much more, we're in trouble. There's people over there with heart problems and breathing problems, and some of those were caused by breathing that shit earlier. There's a girl that's going to have a baby any minute now. There's no beds, damn little food, and a lot of kids and old folks. I'd feel a lot better if I could get them all the hell out of town so I don't have to worry about them any longer. How many of them could you take with you this trip?"
Bud thought for a moment, then replied, "Not many. If we really cram the caboose, we can put maybe forty people in there, and another dozen or so in the engine cabs. How many people do you have to go?
"I'm not real sure," the depressed fireman replied. "But it's about five hundred. Fifty or so won't even touch the really serious cases. We could maybe take more if we loaded people's cars on those flat cars you just brought up."
Bud multiplied rapidly in his head. "We'd get a lot more people that way. Say, six or seven people per car. We ought to be able to get three cars on a flat, so that's twenty people per flat. Nine flats makes a hundred and eighty people, plus fifty in the cabs and way car. That's two-thirty. That's half your problem, damn near. You could get everyone you're really worried about out of here."
"Well, that beats fifty," Linder said, still disappointed, trying to accept something less than a total solution.
While Bud and Linder were talking, Penny had been staring out the car windows at nothing in particular. He was tired, and his head ached. The storm whipped around the cab in the dark, but occasionally a familiar shape could be perceived in the engine's lights through the murk of flying snowflakes. There across the tracks was something he was sure he had seen a million times before, and suddenly, he knew what it was.
"We can do better than that," he told the other two. "Load those school buses over there onto the flats and we can take everybody."
Marie Rumsey was terrified.
"No, baby! Not here! Not now!" she cried between the pains as he lay on the only bed in the school, in a little room off the principal's office. She could tell that the baby couldn't be far off. The pains were coming stronger and closer together now, but there were other things she wanted. She wanted to be elsewhere, like maybe at home, or the hospital in Spearfish Lake. She wanted her Freddie with her. She hated this place. She had hated having to go to school, and now that the most important thing that would ever happen to her was happening, she didn't want it to happen in this place that she hated so much.
At least now, a doctor and a nurse from Spearfish Lake were here. That was more than the retired and doddering old nurse that had been all the medical help available to Warsaw until now. They were telling her to try to relax, but she couldn't relax.
Where was Freddie?
"How long before you guys have to be heading back?" Linder asked.
The engineer thought about it. There hadn't been any really bad spots on the way up, and that was after a delay of more than an hour in Spearfish Lake. But, the plow could cut through a lot of drifting, and that made it hard to guess. "Uh, I'd guess we've got an hour, anyway, from when we arrived," he said hesitantly. "Could be more, but it's hard to say. The Milwaukee will be blade-first eastbound, so that'll help a little. We can maybe stretch it out to an hour from now, or a little more." He turned to Penny, who had been riding the plow, and had been able to see more.
"Don't know, Bud," the brakeman said, shaking his head. "With the wind shifting, it could get worse."
Remembering the last trip, Bud turned back to the fireman. "You've got an hour. That's all we dare do. We can't risk getting stuck with a load of kids and women and old folks."
Uncertainty rose in the fire chief again. "I don't know if we can get everybody on the buses and the buses on the flats and tied down in an hour."
"Give it your best shot," Bud replied. "Get some of the guys from the Spearfish Lake department to help. They've got an idea of how it's done. And there's some guys from Jerusalem Paper that know how trailers are chained down, if you can find them."
"That'll help some," Linder agreed.
"Just drive the buses straight on," Bud went on. "We can only take one of them per flat, so that's nine, total. We could marry a bus up with a van or something short like that."
"Good enough," Linder agreed. "I'll send one of the ambulances back with the pregnant gal if you'll bring it back the next trip."
That brought home to Bud just what was riding on this run. "Get a move on, Fred. Time's wasting."
"On the way," the fireman nodded as he headed for his snowmobile.
Bud called the Milwaukee on the VHF. "Walt, I know Frank wants to see what's going on. He's got half an hour, tops. I want you to get out and check either side of the flats, We don't want to lose any tiedown chains in the snow. John and I'll take the Milwaukee and pick up those hoppers over at the fertilizer plant."
"I could do that," Walt replied.
"Not the way that you're hacking and sneezing," Bud told him. "This is gonna be a gas mask job."
"What's the holdup?"
"We've got a return load."
Linder hoped Masterfield and his own crew could take care of themselves for a while. He wasn't going to have any time for the fire for the next hour, but he was going to be able to get all the evacuees out of town. That was much better than he had dared dream a few minutes ago.
He roared over to the school on his snowmobile. One of the Spearfish Lake ambulances was at the school already, and its radio was set on the county emergency frequency. On it, he called for someone to find the county plows and to have them plow out the buses at the bus barn. He told the crew of the pumper at the warehouse fire to find Marshall and have him get the paper company's shipping crew and get them over to the train. Then, he had a quick word with Masterfield, to let him know what was going on, and that a few Spearfish Lake firemen would be needed soon.
Inside the school, Linder went straight to the principal's office, and found the elderly Jim Horton there. Jim had been a real tower of strength during the evacuation, especially since he was the only village councilman who wasn't on the fire department or who didn't work at Jerusalem Paper.
"We lucked out, Jim," Linder told the harrassed, gray man, explaining the deal he had worked out with Ellsberg. "The only thing is, we haven't got much time," he explained. "They can only stay here an hour or so or else they'll be snowed in, too."
"Guess we'll have to do it in an hour, then."
"Right. I'll get things going, but you're going to have to keep them going."
"OK," Horton replied, "You know what you want done, anyway."
"Glad you think so," the fire chief mumbled as he turned to the PA set that he had used a few minutes before to give the evacuees a progress report on the fire. There was a hum from the speakers in the hall. "Give me your attention, please," he said.
The babbling noise in the building died out, punctuated by a few random cries from babies. "This is Fred Linder again. The train got in a few minutes ago with the Spearfish Lake fire department, so we're not fighting this alone any longer!"
A wild cheer echoed throughout the building. Linder wished that Ellsberg and Penny could have heard this thanks for their efforts. As the cheer died out, he went on. "Now the bad news. The wind is shifting on us. The school is still safe, but I don't know how long it's going to stay that way. If the wind shifts much further, we're going to have to get out of here. There's no place else in Warsaw that's safe that's big enough to take this crowd."
A murmur broke out throughout the builidng, but Linder raised his voice to ride over it. "The railroad has offered to haul everybody here down to Spearfish Lake. I think that it's best that we take them up on their offer. Now, I saw Skip Peterson here a few minutes ago. Skip, you and anybody else in the building that knows how to drive a school bus, come to the principal's office right away. Everybody else, get ready to leave. We're going to get you out of here as soon as we get the buses going."
Linder searched for a way to end his statement, then went on, "While you're down there in Spearfish Lake, pray for those of us that are still here. Jim Horton will be getting back with you to tell you when and where to load. God bless you all."
The fire chief was sweating as he turned the microphone off. He could fight a fire, but persuading a crowd of scared and tired people to leave their homes scared him worse than any fire he had ever seen -- including this one.
With that terror over with, he went into the little room off of the principal's office where Marie Rumsey lay. "You heard that, didn't you, Marie?" She nodded, and he went on, "We're going to be putting you in an ambulance in a few minutes. We'll be taking you to Spearfish Lake on the train, too. It's going to take a little while to get you down there. Do you think you can make it?"
"Can Freddie go with me?" she sobbed.
Every man counted, but this fire was going to go on for so long that Linder realized that he was going to have to start giving his men a break every now and then. A bunch of dead tired firefighters could lose the battle. A little rest might leave him some reserve, and Fred Rumsey deserved a break as much as anybody. Maybe more.
"If I can find him before the train leaves, he can go," he told the frightened girl. "But he's going to have to come right back up here on the next train. Will that do?"
"That'll be fine," she started to say, but it turned to a scream as another pain hit her.
The bawling of the Milwaukee's air horn caught Halsey's attention in the fertilizer plant. Until the last hour or so it had been possible to work in the plant without protection from the toxic smoke, although an occasional whiff of it had come stinking through the plant. With the wind shift, it wasn't safe in the building any more. Fortunately, fertilizer plants handle a lot of nasty stuff, and the plant had a few army surplus gas masks used when handling anhydrous ammonia. They were hot and hard to work in, and since they restricted the vision, they made it a lot harder for the front loader driver to see where he was going. Still, the handful of Northern Fertilizer employees, rotated into and out of the danger zone, were keeping the fertilizer moving.
In his gas mask, Halsey had to stand right to Bud Ellsberg, wearing a face mask borrowed from a fire department, to make himself understood. "You're just in time," Halsey yelled. "We're just about ready to get into those full cars."
"What do you need?" Bud yelled back.
"Just take everything but the last two cars. Leave them last two up near the south end of the building. We'll move them by hand or something when we need them spotted."
"Will do. Good luck, Chip."
Once they had pulled the string of cars out the few hundred feet required, Bud hit the whistle, and Penny uncoupled the last two cars, riding the last car out of the fumes as Bud pulled the rest right up to the beginning of the switch onto the passing track, where the flatcars lay in wait. While Bud stopped and uncoupled, Penny walked up the side of the cars to the waiting Milwaukee. The fertilizer hoppers would have to sit there until the evacuation train left, for Bud planned to couple them onto the end of the flatcars.
The two of them stood outside in the blowing snow and the darkness for a while, letting the wind blow some of the stink out of their clothes. "That shit is terrible," John said, trying to make conversation.
"Hell, we were just in there for a few minutes," Bud replied. "How would you like to be in that madhouse, trying to move tons and tons of that stuff, knowing all the time that it could blow up in your face any minute?"
"That ammonium nitrate is that bad?"
"Back about the time I was born," Bud said, "There used to be a town named Texas City. A shipload of that shit flattened it, with a kiloton-range blast. There's not anything like that much here, but if the paper plant goes and they don't have that stuff out of there, they might be looking at a big hole in the ground."
"If the plant goes," Penny said thoughtfully, "Let's be in Spearfish Lake."
Bud stopped and looked around him. He had a nagging worry in the back of his mind, and now he voiced it. "You better hope that it doesn't get that far. That old wood barn over there" -- he nodded to where the paper plant was lost in the darkness and blowing snow -- "represents more of our carloadings than I like to think about. If it goes, you and I are both going to be on unemployment."
Bruce Marshall hadn't thought about the railroad's business all day, but the specter of unemployment for a good chunk of Warsaw was very much on his mind. He knew very well what the effect on Warsaw would be if the plant were to burn.
It was a secret that he didn't let out to anyone in Warsaw, for he knew he could be wrong. He had been wrong about it before, but he didn't think he could win, this time.
The Jerusalem Paper Products plant in Warsaw was old. Marshall had fought off several attempts by the front office in the past to shut it down. There was a meeting scheduled on the subject again the first of the month. There was a chance that Marshall could win again; he'd done so before. But even if the plant did survive the fire, the end for Warsaw could be in sight.
The plant supervisor was still throwing all the energy he could into trying to save the plant. If the plant still stood, there was a chance he could hold out. He might be able to use the proven dedication of the firefighters as a weapon in the upcoming boardroom battle over the plant.
He went on about his business with that thought in mind. All of the dangerous chemicals that could be moved were out of the plant. Right now, the plant's doors were wide open, trying to make the paper dust that had built up over the years blow out into the storm, and that was starting to get risky. Marshall checked the building's fire partols frequently, and was all over the place himself trying to think of something else to fireproof the place. If the Walsenberg fire department ever got there, perhaps it might be possible to soak the place down and make it even more fire resistant.
Marshall had agreed with Linder when Spearfish Lake arrived that the fresh department should be thrown at the pulp yards, for right now they presented a more pressing danger to the town. That didn't keep Marshall from wishing that the plant were guarded with hundreds of firefighters, and bathed in hundreds of hoses. All the while, though, the thought was with him: "Is all this going to waste?"
Jim Horton had been able to round up half a dozen school bus drivers to help the elderly school bus mechanic, Skip Peterson, get the buses going. The school's wrecker was sitting in the bus barn, as were two buses. Those were easy to get going, and they were already warming up in front of the school.
The rest of the buses were waiting in a long row west of the bus barn, their backs to the railroad tracks, and by now were pretty well snowed in. The big county plow had cut a path sufficiently wide in front of the buses, but they were parked too close together to get them entirely free. It involved shovel work to get to their doors, but the loading crew from the railroad tracks could be pressed into service.
"We only need nine," Horton had told Peterson. Two were already at the school, and of the first four buses that Peterson tried, three started right up, and he was able to drive two of them straight out of the snowdrifts. Removing those gave the plow a chance to get one side of the stuck bus loosened up, but it took a tug from the wrecker to free it. That made five buses at the school, or on the way.
Heartened by his success so far, Peterson moved to the next bus. The battery wouldn't turn the engine over; it just grunted. The next bus, Peterson didn't even try, it was a diesel, and had always been a hard starter. That left three. Two of these started, but both had to be towed before they could go to the school.
Peterson and Joe McGuinnis, from Spearfish Lake, started to work on one of the remaining buses with jumper cables from the wrecker. A pickup truck drove up, carrying drivers to take the running buses. "How about that one you didn't try?" the Spearfish Lake man asked.
"Gimmie the keys," McGuinnis said. "You don't know till you try."
Peterson surrendered the keys, then turned to the job of jumping the last one. With the cables hooked up, it protested mightly, but in the end it struggled to life. The mechanic looked around, for time was getting short, and saw a waiting driver. As the eighth bus bounced out of the drift and off to school, Peterson said to himself, "Might as well try the one next to the one that joker thinks he's gonna start."
Just then the lights of the balky bus came on, and it lurched forward out of the snowdrift. "Well, I'll be damned," Peterson said softly.
The first buses hadn't proven hard to load. Horton figured that he wanted to get about fifty people per bus. The first two were quickly filled and were on their way to the loading ramp only a few minutes after the ambulance carrying Marie Rumsey left.
The confusion at the school was hardly less than it had been a few hours before when the evacuees arrived. What made it difficult for Horton was the fact that few people wanted to leave.
The people of Warsaw had left their homes earlier only with the stink of toxic smoke driving them. At the school, they at least had some idea of what was going on with their homes and their futures. They felt a part of the battle for the town. Leaving felt like desertion, and there were a lot of people that didn't want to desert.
The first two buses had been loaded with people who saw that it made good sense to leave. To be fair, there were a lot of people that had that sense, but couldn't bear to tear themselves away. The loading of the third bus went reasonably well, but the stream was slowing.
Horton told the driver of the fourth bus, "Only take about forty people, and drop them at the caboose. Then, come back here and get another load." But, it seemed to the councilman that it was taking a long time to get forty people to the bus.
Marie Rumsey had been the first evacuee to leave the school, in the Spearfish Lake ambulance that had only recently reached the beleaguered town.
One of the doctors from Spearfish Lake had examined her, and then had called a conference with a nurse and three Emergency Medical Technicians in the hall. "There's every indication that she's going to have a normal birth, and there's all kinds of trouble that could break out here. I'm not going back with her. She may make it to Spearfish Lake, but if she doesn't, Nancy, you've had years on OB. There shouldn't be anything you and these guys can't handle."
Shortly after that, the impromptu crew loaded Marie in the ambulance, which drove slowly down School and Plant Streets to the loading dock, where they found Frank Matson waving them right onto the train, the first to load. With Matson walking ahead of them to guide them up the narrow flat cars, they bumped over the ramps until they reached the first flat car, just behind the C&SL way car, which only had the snowplow and the Rock ahead of it; the Milwaukee was just hooking on again as the ambulance came to a stop.
"Marie, this is going to be a long trip and a rough ride," the nurse told her, "But we're going to try to make it as comfortable as we can."
"Where's Freddie?" the girl plaintively whispered.
"He's on his way," one of the EMTs replied. "I just heard Chief Linder talking to him on the radio. We're not going to be leaving for a little while, anyway."