WEYAUWEGA, Wis. (WFRV)-The major train derailment in eastern Ohio has some Northeast Wisconsinites remembering a similar accident that happened in Weyauwega in 1996.
Marietta Paap is a historian with the Weyauwega Historical Society and was in the city when the train accident happened in March 1996. She said when the accident initially happened she was just outside the city limits, but remembers seeing a plume of smoke. She said nobody really knew what was happening.
She said she remembers ending up at St. Peter Lutheran School where she taught and that firefighters arrived with an ominous message.
“The firemen said that everybody has to leave and we said leave school and they said no leave town and we thought it would only be for about 20 minutes not realizing it would be 16 days,” said Paap.
Over 30 rail cars derailed in the accident. Sixteen derailed of them contained hazardous materials including sodium hydroxide, liquefied petroleum gas, and propane.
Some of these hazardous materials caught fire causing damage to a local feed mill facility and knocked out gas and water service throughout the city of Weyauwega.
Over 3,000 Weyauwega residents had to evacuate the city for about two weeks.
“It was scary because nobody knew what had happened to their homes or their school or churches and we wondered if we would ever get back to it,” said Paap.
Three people suffered minor injuries during the evacuation, but nobody was hurt directly from the accident. It caused about $19 million in damage.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that a switch point rail breaking due to an undetected bolt hole crack caused the derailment. They said Wisconsin Central (the railroad company that owned the train that derailed) didn’t properly train two employees responsible for maintaining that portion of track.
Paap said that she went to Michigan to stay with family during the two-week period when it wasn’t safe to stay in Weyauwega. Others stayed in hotels in the area.
She said railroad officials updated Weyauwega residents about what was going on every day. She said hearing about the accident in Ohio immediately made her think about what happened in her own hometown back in 1996.
“It’s very important for us to remember the history of the past, we can learn from it, we can get strength from it, we can get courage from it, and we can learn how to deal with things better,” said Paap.
There was actually another major train derailment incident in Weyauwega back in 1908. At Weyauwega City Hall, there’s a display case with newspaper clippings from the 1996 accident, a piece of railroad that was there when the accident happened, and even shirts and hats commemorating the event.
“When we finally got allowed back (into the city) everybody at my church everybody was hugging because people were so happy to be together again,” said Paap.