1989 Helena Train Explosion


Train Explosion: Carroll College remembers

Posted at 9:07 PM, Feb 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-04 17:01:17-05

HELENA – “It was kind of like a war zone,” remembered former Carroll boiler engineer Butch Biskupiak.

“I still think about the explosion and that day and still celebrate the miracle of, that nobody got hurt,” added Carroll student Class of 1990 Patrick Harris.

Much like the rest of city, the students, facility and staff of Carroll College awoke in the dark to confusion, panic and rumors; trying to make sense of what had just rocked campus.

“I thought it was an earthquake and I went over to the window and looked out,” said Ed Noonan, the Saint Charles Resident Director in 1989. “And the original blast set off this chain reaction where then the transformers, at the northwest hub there on the Gulch as it turns into Cedar, exploded. So I was looking right over at it. So, at that point I had no idea what was going on.”

“People were coming out of their dorm rooms and into the hall, trying to figure out what was going on,” said Harris. “And at that point we thought that maybe the boiler on this building, Saint Charles building, blew up.”

But even with no clear answers on what the chaos was, everyone jumped into action, almost out of instinct, with no protocol for a situation like this.

“Immediately people started coming to my room to ask, especially in those day,s we called them R-A Residents Assistants,” continued Noonan. “They are Community Assistants now, but they came down and I was able to call down to ‘Guad’ to the Community Resident Director down their Nancy O’Riley and she said everything had exploded.”

“The next thing that happened is Ed Noonan and the CA’s came up on our floor and told us that we were going to have to evacuate,” said Harris. “There was another explosion that took place after the initial explosion and we still couldn’t figure out what was going on but we knew it was serious.”

He wasn’t wrong. Many of the buildings were severely damaged, including Guadalupe Hall, which took the full force of the blast. Blowing out all the windows and knocking out power, making the building unlivable.

With the extensive destruction, students and faculty were evacuated to different places around town, like the Armory and Civic Center. But those places didn’t stay filled for long.

“That was an amazing part of the experience is Helenans showed up at the armory and said, ‘what do you need’ or ‘can we take somebody home?’ So by noon that day, everybody was somewhere. The armory by then had been cleared out.”

“And as we were at the Civic Center people started showing up from the community who were either, a student had babysat for or connected through sports, or whatever,” said Harris. “And students were being taken to community homes.”

Housing for the displaced Saints wasn’t the only way Carroll found help. As former boiler engineer Butch Biskupiak quickly found out, businesses jumped at the chance to help lend a hand.

“I worked 47 hours straight going from building to building,” said Biskupiak “We had people from the city. If I’m not mistaken, UBC (Universal Building Center) back then, showed up with a huge truck load of plywood and dumped it behind Guad for us to start boarding up windows and stuff like that. The community outreach was amazing.”

What was even more amazing was the fact that even with the widespread destruction there were no injuries. But instead a strengthened bond between the school and the community.

“We know that the Helena community will always be there for us, and Carroll College will always be there for the Helena community,” added Harris. “So that is really something that I still celebrate to this day.”

“To never underestimate people’s ability to rise to a crisis,” sad Noonan. “The very fact that from all corners of the campus and the community, people almost automatically tried to do something. When people are put to the test good things can happen.”

Reporting by Andy Curtis for MTN News