29th anniversary of Helena train wreck

HELENA – This year marks the 29th anniversary of one of Helena’s worst disasters.

Runaway railroad cars caused an explosion that rocked the Queen City of the Rockies, leaving many without power or shelter in frigid -35 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures.

Around 4:30 in the morning on February 2nd 1989 over 40 cars of a Montana Rail Link freight train decoupled from their locomotives and began rolling backwards down Mullan Pass.

The cars traveled 9 miles, gaining speed as they went, before colliding with a parked work train near the Benton Ave. rail crossing.

Some of the cars were carrying hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol which caught fire and exploded, sending a large black plume of smoke into the sky.

That fiery explosion is something that Helena residents like Historian Ellen Baumler say they will never forget.

“It was just the most incredible thing and I will never forget that orange flash,” said Baumler, “It was just like it was this gigantic fireball.”

The explosion threw pieces of the train hundreds of feet into the air which damaged nearby buildings.

Several homes and business suffered damages, but the most extensive damage was on the Carroll College campus. Most of the windows in Guadalupe Hall were shattered and a piece of a railroad car landed in the college library.

The explosion also knocked out power for hours in -30F degree temperatures where wind chills were reaching -70F.

After the smoke had cleared over 3,000 people were evacuated, the town suffered $10 million in damages and it took crews days before the wreckage could be cleared.

Amazingly, no one was seriously injured due to the explosion.