Buelow (Chester) Mont., March 6, 1966

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The ultimate cause of the Buelow wreck, a spectacular head-on between the Western Star and Empire Builder, remains an open question today.

Veteran engineer Barney Runyon, engineer of the westbound Western Star ran through the approach and stop indications for a meet with the Empire Builder, and plowed into the other train at speed. Miraculously, only two were killed — the two engineers, but scores were injured.

Of particular note in this incident is the fact that GN president John M. Budd Sr. and Vice President John L. Robson were riding in a business car on the Empire Builder involved in the crash. Budd was also in the same situation in the 1952 head-on collision of #27 and #28 at Ft. Belknap, MT in 1952.

Photos of the wrecked F-units in Minneapolis on RRarchive.net....

Dave Sprau's recollections

Dave Sprau was a telegrapher and train dispatcher on NP and GN Tacoma and Seattle, beginning in 1960, BN train dispatcher Havre, Vancouver, Seattle 1970-1995, retiring as a shortline superintendent in Tacoma in 1998.

One old rumor in connection with the wreck of Westbound Western Star and Eastbound Empire Builder trains at Buelow in 1966 was that the block signal system wasn’t working and employees therefore were ignoring red signal indications.

Another silly rumor suggests that the crew of No 27 was not aware that they had any opposition. These are complete fabrications. Engineer Barney Runyan on Western Star train 27, for reasons unexplained, ran past a Red Block Signal at the west switch of Buelow. He was an experienced rail, (age 67) smart enough to not do something like that, and instinctively would have known better than to presume any of those kind of things about the signal system or operating procedure. He would have been acutely aware that the eastbound Empire Builder had not been met as yet. And he also would have been aware that were he foolish enough to run thru a control signal in CTC territory, there is a good chance of damaging the Dual Control track switch to the tune of several thousand dollars, plus making it unsafe for other trains to pass over.

What happened was, he simply "ran the red block." Nobody will ever know why -whether he was daydreaming or preoccupied - (the information about his wife being recently diagnosed with cancer was true) - or if he suddenly became incapacitated, or just what. But he was a respected railroader who knew better than to "assume" it would be okay to just ignore a red block and the yellow block that would have preceded it.

I heard all about this wreck when I was a dispatcher at Havre, about six years later. The operator at Havre Relay office (Howard Tibbetts) who gave Runyan his written clearance and train orders told me of the engineers’ wife's illness, and how he commented he would probably be laying off when he got to Whitefish.

The automatic block signals and Centralized Traffic Control signal system were working until the crash. The dispatcher on duty on that territory (David J. Evans) and one or two of the other dispatchers in the room at the time, all told me that Dave was watching the two trains approach Buelow on his control machine; everything seemed normal at first. The first thing noticeable in the dispatchers office was when the control point at West Buelow on the CTC machine "lit up like a Christmas tree." All the indication lights west of Buelow started flashing, and they knew immediately "something" was wrong.

"Something" of course, was the result of the crash. The CTC Code line wires broke, and all the indications coming back into the office from beyond the break were unreadable. The rest is history....


From the Whitefish Pilot

1966, 10 March: Two Whitefish Enginemen Die
As G. N. Passenger Trains Collide

Shaken and reluctant to talk of their experience, Whitefish crewmen from two wrecked trains returned home this week.

Two who did not come back were Eric Walters, 68, engineer of train No. 32, the eastbound Empire Builder, and Barney Runyan, 67, engineer of No. 27, the westbound Western Star. The two trains met head-on Monday morning east of Chester, and both engineers were killed.

Crews of both trains were from Whitefish. Apparently most seriously injured was Roger S. Hardy, fireman on No. 27, who suffered a concussion. Other crewmen who were bruised and shaken included Arnold Hale, fireman on No. 32; M.G. Stocking, C.R. Parks, Bruce Pfrimmer, Allen Quien, Harry Madux and Richard ""Dick" Guymon.

Word of the tragedy spread through Whitefish even before news services transmitted it.

The two diesel engines came to rest on their tops. Officials said the presence of mail and express cars directly behind the engines helped hold down the toll of dead and injured. About 29 persons were hospitalized, and 15 others were treated and released.

The Western Star, first train out of the Twin Cities in several days after some of the worst blizzards ever recorded in the plains area, carried 88 passengers. The Empire Builder, second eastbound train to head for the blizzard area, carried 57.

Investigation of the accident by G. N. and Liberty county officials began immediately. Butte division superintendent Eugene Coan, Great Falls was in charge of the G. N.'s investigation. Dan Parks, assistant superintendent at Whitefish, said he had no official information on the investigation, since it is being handled by the Butte division.

Whitefish crewmen involved in the wreck were operating between here and Havre, the crew change point. However, the local division stretches only as far east as Cut Bank.

Early news reports quoted officials as saying that the Western Star had gone through a red signal at about 80 miles an hour, along a stretch of single track which was under the central traffic control system. The Empire Builder reportedly was moving at about 10 miles an hour.

Hale said he and Walters both jumped from the cab of the Empire Builder when they saw the crash was inevitable. Hardy reportedly was repairing a boiler in the Western Star when he felt the brakes being "dynamited." Walter's body was found on the ground. Runyan's had to be removed from the wreckage and was subject to an autopsy. Results were not made public.

The grinding crash sent mail, baggage and personal effects flying over a wide area of slushy, muddy ground. Some cars were thrown as far as 70 feet from the track. Greatest damage in the passenger-carrying parts of the trains was in the dining cars where tables, chairs and other non-stationary objects were tossed around.

Uninjured in the wreck were two top Great Northern officers, President John L. Budd and Vice President John L. Robson. Their private car was at the rear of the Empire Builder.

From the Havre Daily News

1966, 07 March: Passenger "Head-On" Kills Two Engineers

Chester, Mont., - A. P. - A head-on collision of two Great Northern passenger trains Monday killed the two engineers and injured an undetermined number of passengers.

Killed were Bernard L. Runyan, 67, engineer on the west-bound mail-passenger train, the Western Star, and Eric A. Walters, 68 engineer on the east-bound Empire Builder, fast passenger train. Both men were from Whitefish.

Railroad officials said the Empire Builder was heading into a siding at the time of the 11:30 a. m. crash. The area is in the railroad's centralized traffic control territory.

Officials at Liberty County Hospital in Chester said at least six persons were under treatment at that hospital and that other injured may have been taken to other hospitals. Ambulances were called from Havre, 55 miles to the east, and from Shelby, 45 miles to the west.

Blizzard conditions in North Dakota over the past weekend had delayed traffic in both directions across Montana. A number of trains had been held up for as much as 18 hours. About 12 inches of snow and muddy prairie hampered rescue operations. A number of ambulances and fire trucks were unable to cross about one mile of open ground between the railroad tracks and U. S. Highway 2 which parallels the tracks.

Railroad officials said the east-bound Empire Builder was carrying 100 passengers. The Western Star was carrying 45 passengers, the company said. Wrecking equipment to clear the tracks was enroute from Whitefish, Havre and Spokane.

The Empire Builder originated in Seattle, Wash., Sunday and left Spokane about midnight. Company officials said other trains would detour by way of Havre, Great Falls and Shelby to bypass the accident.

Dr. Richard Buker of Chester, was one of the first to reach the crash scene. He said the engines and first six cars of each train were telescoped into on mass. Eight or nine cars were off the track and two or three still were upright. "Some of the railroad cars were as far as 60 to 70 feet from the track, and mail and express were thrown about everywhere," Buker said. He said one engineer was thrown clear of the wreck and apparently died outright. The other was pinned under the wreckage. Buker said he crawled under the wreckage to determine the pinned engineer was dead.

One fireman told Buker he saw the collision was inevitable and jumped clear. The fireman suffered bruises, Buker said. The other fireman was admitted to the Liberty County Hospital. He was badly shaken, had bruises and a concussion, but was not seriously injured. Buker said he walked through the train and with Sheriff-Coroner Ben Remington checked all the cars. He said no one person seemed in critical condition. About 20 had minor cuts and bruises but were not taken to hospitals. The most seriously injured were those in the dining cars of each train. Because they were not in stationary seats, they were thrown by the impact.

Officials said the fact that both trains had mail and express cars behind the engine absorbed much of the impact and accounted for the low injury rate among passengers.



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