BENKELMAN, Neb. — They picked them up, dusted them off, fed them and sent them on their way.
Scores of southwest Nebraskans and others quickly adopted nearly 200 stranded, shaken Amtrak passengers minutes after a derailment abruptly dumped them Friday into a remote corner of the state.
The Chicago-bound California Zephyr derailed when it hit a crane boom used by a crew demolishing an abandoned grain elevator in Dundy County — 200 miles east of Denver and 340 miles west of Omaha.
The two engines tipped onto their left sides. The luggage car, a sleeper car, a lounge car and three of the seven coaches jumped the tracks.
There were no fatalities, and a total of 21 people were taken to three area hospitals for treatment. All but three were treated and released. None had critical injuries.
Remarkably, it was the train's second wreck since leaving San Francisco on Wednesday morning.
It's "been a long, rough trip," said passenger Harvey Evans, 37, of Grand Island.
When passengers emerged from the wreckage in rural Nebraska, they found themselves at a countryside railroad crossing tucked between a gravel road on one side and the Republican River on the other. The lumber-and-tin grain elevator was the tallest thing on the horizon.
The passengers were five miles from Benkelman, the nearest town, and more than 800 miles from their destination. The nearest paved highway was one mile away. Interstate 80 was about 90 miles north.
But they weren't alone.
More than a dozen towns in southwest Nebraska and adjoining communities in Kansas and Colorado sent ambulances, firetrucks and other emergency help.
The Dundy County-Stratton Schools dispatched buses to truck uninjured passengers to the high school gymnasium in Benkelman. Town and country residents ferried the passengers' luggage to town. Sophomore biology students escorted the travelers to the gym.
The railroad refugees swelled Benkelman's population of 953 by about 20 percent for several hours. Tables and bleachers were set up in the school auditorium. Locker rooms were opened for the passengers.
The school library's computers were fired up for passengers to check in with family and friends. The school unblocked Facebook on its Internet service for the passengers' use.
One man who left his eyeglasses on the train got help at the computer from Nickole Sis of Benkelman to buy an airline ticket from McCook to Denver and finally to Milwaukee to complete his trip home.
Sis also made a few phone calls and organized a picnic lunch at the school for the passengers. People and businesses from as far as 60 miles away donated food, water and snacks.
"Some stuff, I couldn't tell you where it came from, it just showed up," said Jim Kent, the high school principal.
Anthony "Bubba'' Manley, manager of the Subway shop 40 miles away in Imperial, donated two party platters loaded with footlong sandwiches cut into thirds.
Robert Janousek donated eight cases of water, Little Debbie snacks, Kool-Aid, lemonade and hamburger buns from his Hometown Market in Benkelman. Townspeople nearly cleared the grocery's shelves of potato chips, crackers, vegetables, fruit and cookies to donate.
The Walmart in McCook, more than 50 miles east of Benkelman, sent two pickup trucks loaded with water and snacks.
Beth Bolio brought a big bowl of potato salad she originally intended to serve at her bar and grill in Benkelman.
AmFirst Bank provided frozen hamburgers. Bank officers set up gas grills and cooked for about three hours to feed the castaways lunch.
By about 4:30 p.m. Friday, the last group of Amtrak-chartered buses pulled out of Benkelman to continue the passengers' journeys.
Their trek started at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday when the train left the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville. It would be a trouble-plagued journey.
The train hit an abandoned car at 12:45 a.m. Thursday in Wendover, Nev. There were no injuries, but the train was delayed 4½ hours, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.
The train was running about eight hours behind schedule when it derailed west of Benkelman at 7:51 a.m. MDT Friday.
Kelly Hayward of nearby Parks, Neb., said the truck-mounted crane boom was hanging over the tracks. Hayward said the demolition crew didn't expect a train at that hour.
Dundy County Board member Scott Hogeland of Benkelman said a private company is tearing down the grain elevator.
Most passengers were just beginning their day when the derailment occurred.
Evans, the Grand Island passenger, described the collision.
"All of a sudden I hear brakes. (The) train's rolling, rocking, moving side to side," said Evans.
He said he grabbed a chair to steady himself.
"All of a sudden we stopped."
Retired teachers John and Jackie Albee of Davenport, Iowa, were traveling from Denver when they felt a bump and felt the train braking. They said they saw the train hit the crane.
Passenger John Maasch of Denver said that there was no panic and that rescuers arrived from all directions within 10 minutes.
Jose Nava, a resident of the Bay Area in California, was taking his daughter to Boston to start college.
"Our goal was to get to Boston by Saturday or Sunday," Nava said.
Nava charged his laptop computer and cellphones at the only electrical outlet he could find in the school conference room. He could not get a signal to use his phone.
Nava was in the third passenger car, a sleeping car, when the accident occurred. He called the crash's three jolts nerve-racking.
Jason Frederick, publisher of the Benkelman Post and News-Chronicle, was one of the first people on the scene.
He said passengers seemed shaken but calm. Those who were treated by emergency medical teams appeared "upset, with their heads down, hands on their faces, shaking their head," he said.
Two older couples, one from New Zealand and the other from Australia, traveling to Chicago were at ease and sorry that they missed the bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Many passengers conveyed their thanks to the rescue responders and volunteers.
Rescuers originally were sent the wrong way out of Benkelman when the derailment call came in. They went to Max, nine miles east of Benkelman. The accident was west of Benkelman at an unincorporated old village site called Doane.
Gene Zimbelman, chief of Benkelman's volunteer fire department, said at least 200 emergency personnel from at least 15 counties in three states responded to the call.
"I can't give enough praise to all the local citizens," Zimbelman said. "They all pitched in. The response time of emergency personnel was fantastic."
Kent, the high school principal, said the outpouring was typical of the rural community.
"This is what we do,'' he said. "We just help out when there's a problem."
Friday night, they relaxed.
It was Dundy County-Stratton's annual soap scrimmage football game before next week's season opener.
The snack bar was well stocked with mounds of chips, snacks and water left over from feeding the Amtrak visitors.
World-Herald staff writer Sam Womack contributed to this report, which includes material from Andrew Bottrell of the North Platte Telegraph, publishers Jason and Amy Frederick of the Benkelman Post and News-Chronicle, publisher Russ Pankonin and photographer Jeff Pribbeno of the Imperial Republican, and the Associated Press.
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