There is never a good time or a good place for a train wreck, or for any calamity. But the response to the April 3 incident in which an Amtrak passenger train with 115 people on board derailed at Home Valley ought to be reassuring to those living in the mid-Columbia River Gorge area.
The response to this "mass casualty incident" brought law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel from east and west, north and south.
The accident happened at about 9:30 a.m. In short order, emergency responders were swarming around the scene, working to get passengers safely away from the site and treat the injured.
An incident command system was set up at the scene, with several Skamania County officials -- including Bob Hildenbrand, Rob Farris, Dave Cox, Pat Bond, and Dave Brown coordinating the emergency response. The team worked with the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Department of Transportation to close State Route 14 to through traffic, a step needed to accommodate the dozens of emergency vehicles staging on SR 14 close to the wreck site.
It seemed like virtually every helpful detail was taken care of, and lessons learned in disaster training drills clearly paid off. Even the huge readerboard directly west of the Hood River Toll Bridge was almost immediately warning motorists that SR 14 was closed at Milepost 50.
In the Bingen-White Salmon community, emergency medical personnel from Skyline Hospital reported in on their days off, as did officers with the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department. Police Chief Rich Cortese and Sgt. Bruce Brending scrambled to the scene to offer assistance. Volunteers from the White Salmon Fire Department also responded, ready to provide help as needed.
This effort was repeated in other communities, from Hood River to Cascade Locks, and from White Salmon to Vancouver.
In short, the entire Gorge area mobilized to deal with what could have been a lot more serious. As it was, about 30 passengers and crew members from the train sought medical treatment, but it turned out that no one was seriously injured.
As is vital in an emergency, there was a lot of fast thinking, and creative solutions were quickly made. Shortly after the Amtrak wreck, for example, school buses were arriving to ferry passengers from the train to the shelter of a local school. Ambulances were lined up to transport the injured. Police were on hand to control traffic (and even to escort members of the press). Firefighters hiked down the tracks with stretchers to be able to help those who needed it.
With the potential for a very tragic disaster at hand, the response went about as flawlessly as could ever be expected in a fast-breaking situation where lives were potentially on the line.
In an era where natural disasters -- from wildfires to earthquakes to floods and even terrorists -- could strike at any time, it's reassuring to see that so many trained professionals are out there and ready to offer aid at a moment's notice. It's wonderful that so many medical personnel and law enforcement officials gave up their day off without hesitation and rushed in to be there to help if needed.
The dedication and savvy shown by all the responding agencies -- firefighters, medical personnel, police officers -- was phenomenal.