1989 Helena Train Explosion

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Train explosion: Helena residents remember

Posted: 3:01 PM, Feb 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-04 17:41:12-05

In the months and hours after the blast on February 2nd, 1989, there was uncertainty for the members of the community living or working on Helena’s west side.

Keith Clevenger, co-owner of Staggering Ox

“Usually someone will bring up a story about something, and I’ll say ‘Oh yeah, well, we gotta better one than that,'” said Keith Clevenger, the co-owner of the Staggering Ox sandwich shop in the Lundy Center.

The Staggering Ox sustained thousands of dollars worth of damage. A news report from that day shows Clevenger on camera, explaining the destruction he found that morning.

“When it happened I had a house up in the south part of town,” said Clevenger. “And we’d been up having fun all night long, and got to bed late.”

“At four in the morning, I heard the explosion. And I looked out my window in time just to watch all the lights in the town go clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk.”

“At that point, I went, ‘Well, the water bed’s not gonna be warm much longer, might as well soak it up while I can,'” said Clevenger. “So I didn’t get out of bed until we had our neighbor at Ben Franklin, he came up to see us and said you better get down to your shop, and I did.”

When he arrived at the restaurant, Clevenger was able to step through the large windows at the front, which had been blown out from the blast.

His 200 plants – “it was a jungle in there” – looked the same, but it turned out the cold had killed them.

“I went up and touched a leaf, and it just shattered in my hands.” 

One of the plants, a 14 foot tall cactus which almost touched the restaurant ceiling, toppled to the floor after the heat came back on.

Clevenger told MTN the plants alone were thousands of dollars, and insurance covered them. In addition, people in Helena helped him curate his collection all over again.

“Everyone in town found out our plants died, so we got everybody’s orphans and strays,” he said. “So we kinda repopulated the place quite quickly.”

Clevenger said it took a few weeks for them to clean up and reopen the restaurant.

Today, the Staggering Ox’s menu claims the “MRL” is named after the explosion.

Ellen Baumler, historian

“This was my first winter in Montana,” said Ellen Baumler. “We had come to Helena in 1988, the spring before. It wasn’t cold then, we came in April I think. And so we really hadn’t lived through a winter, and what a winter that was.”

On the morning of the explosion, Baumler said she was in bed with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and their pets. Her husband Mark was out of town on business, and had been delayed coming back because of car troubles.

“All of a sudden there was this huge bang,” she said. “It sounded like an airplane crash. And that’s really what I thought had happened.”

Baumler went to her window but couldn’t fully see outside because of the frost. She could, however, see  what she described as an orange glow lighting up the sky.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well we’re all piled up in bed, you know, we’re gonna be okay,'” she said. “And so we all just sorta went back to sleep.”

“8 o’clock, the phone rang. And I jumped out of bed and it was my mother in Kansas City. ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I had forgotten there was some crash or something. And she said, ‘Well there was a terrible train wreck, and it’s all over the news, it’s all over the Today Show, are you alright?’ So that’s how I found out what had happened.”

“Of course at the time I didn’t really know this history, but now looking back on it, it was very similar to what happened when we had those terrible earthquakes in 1935. And the community really rallied around people who were displaced.”

Baumler said she was able to see the warmth of her new community after the disaster.

“And probably Helena is no different than other places. I think communities usually do rally around people who are faced with some kind of disaster,  like we saw with the fires this summer. But Helena certainly does show its support. And people open their homes, and it’s what you would expect.”

Shelly McClain, lived near train tracks

Shelly McClain was also dealing with car troubles. She and her husband, along with their son, lived in the Joslin Trailer Court.

“We were having trouble keeping our vehicles running because it was so cold,” she said. “So my husband had done some maintenance to try to keep them running.

“We kind of went about our evening, went to bed, and I woke up to this horrendous metal on metal squealing.”

Initially, McClain thought the car had exploded.

“I was telling my husband what was going on and he was having a little bit of trouble believing it. Shortly after that, probably about ten minutes, we got a call from my in-laws. And my brother-in-law was a firefighter and had been called out to the scene.”

“He called to let us know it was within our parameters and that we probably needed to vacate because there could be dangerous chemicals in the air,” she said.

This was especially scary for the McClains. Their son was about 7 or 8 months old and was on medication for breathing issues.

“When you hear there’s a dangerous chemical in the air that could cause respiratory problems and stuff, we panicked. We loaded up everything that we need for a couple of days and left and went over to my parents’ house.”

McClain said it’s hard to believe it was 30 years ago.

 “Never experienced anything like that before, and have never experienced anything since,” she said. “I kinda forgot about it until talking about it and reliving it again.”