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Tape reveals conversation before derailment:

Union To Grieve Suspension Of Freight Train Engineer

By Peter Anawati

BATHURST (Special) -- The union representing CN Rail employees suspended in the wake of last month's thundering derailment of a runaway freight train is grieving the company's disciplinary action.

George Love, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said Wednesday the company will be notified of the union's intent shortly.

One of the four employees, an engineer who stayed with the runaway freight until it roared off a spur line near Brunswick Mining, has expressed his bitterness about a six-month suspension.

Wesley MacDonald says he could have abandoned the train when it was traveling at 10 mile per hour rather than riding it off the tracks at 70 miles per hour six kilometres south of Bathurst city limits.

MacDonald was the only member of a four-man crew aboard the freight train when it sped out of control down a grade from Brunswick Mining on a secondary line March 9, carrying about 2,000 tons of lead-zinc concentrate.

The train's conductor has also been suspended for six months while two brakemen each were suspended for four months.

Twenty-six cars derailed and spilled their contents while the two locomotives left the track and turned on their sides, spilling about 22,000 litres of diesel fuel.

CN Rail has confirmed its earlier assessment that brake failure was the cause of the crash.

Before the train derailed, it traveled through two level crossings at a time when school busses were making their morning runs along Highway 430. Bus drivers and children were amazed to see the train speeding by, obviously out of control.

MacDonald stayed at the controls, blowing the horn to alert motorists as he neared crossings. He said he stayed with the train because he was concerned about the safety of others and believed he does not deserve the suspension.

``I expected something (disciplinary action) but not this,'' he said.

Throughout the ordeal, MacDonald was in contact with Moncton dispatcher Alphie Bureaux and crew members at other locations by means of a mobile radio. A recording of the conversation leaves no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation.

The following contains excerpts from the taped radio conversation obtained by Times-Transcript correspondent Peter Anawati:

8:23 a.m., March 9, 1987: Crew member: ``Alphie, I think we may have a mayday situation on our hands. We've grabbed a bunch of cars at the mines and we can't hold them . . . She's away on us.''

Bureaux: ``He's (MacDonald) leading on the way out and he can't control that train. Is that what you're saying?''

Crew member: ``That is exactly the situation Alphie. It's a pretty bad situation, really.''

MacDonald: ``I'm going by Brunswick Mills and she's doing 55 miles an hour. Fifty-five at Brunswick Mills and she's gone.''

Bureaux: ``And there's no way you can put that train's emergency (brake) on apparently, Wesley?''

MacDonald: ``There's no air on her Alphie.''

Bureaux to another crew member: ``He's (MacDonald) doing about 50 or 60 miles an hour. Now you fellas better get the hell out of the way. See if there's anybody you can chase away from the track because he's got a runaway train.''

MacDonald: ``Seventy miles an hour!''

Bureaux: ``Wesley, is there no way you can get off that train for the love of heavens?''

MacDonald: ``No, I can't get off her.''

Bureaux: ``Well I think you'd better bail off into a snow bank if you can do it at all.''

MacDonald: ``I can't, boy!''

The conversation continued several minutes later.

MacDonald: ``If I ever get over this, they can put me on the f------ pension.''

Bureaux: ``How many cars you got on there besides your engine, Wesley?''

MacDonald: ``Thirty cars.''

The conversation stalls for a few moments and continues.

MacDonald: ``We're comin' down the Nippi (Nipisiguit River), she's doing 70.''

Crew member: ``Hang on there Wes.''

MacDonald: ``You'd better get someone to take my place if I survive her.''

Bureaux: ``She won't go into emergency, eh?''

MacDonald: ``No, I'm hitting the switch now.''

Bureaux to Bathurst station: ``You'd better warn people along there that we've got a runaway train coming off the Nippi Sub, and I don't know how far he's going to go if he does get off the sub without being derailed and I think you'd better alert a doctor and an ambulance right away. Are you there Wesley?''

There was no answer from MacDonald. Soon after the derailment, CN crews made it to the scene. MacDonald said he suffered a minor head injury when the train derailed but was afraid of fire.

When he tried to break out of the locomotive he was unable to. He said the doors were jammed shut and he couldn't break the windows.

He was evidently rescued and walked away from the accident with some bruises to the head. He resumed transmission with dispatcher Bureaux.

MacDonald: ``Hello, Alphie?''

Bureaux: ``How's she going there?''

MacDonald: ``Still here anyway.''

Bureaux: ``It's some nice to talk to you, I must say.''

MacDonald: `` It's some mess, I'm telling you.

Bureaux: ``Well, you've done a wonderful job to stick with her.''

MacDonald: ``I would have been long gone it I'd jumped (off) her.''

Bureaux: ``She's a hell of a mess there though, Wesley, eh?''

MacDonald: ``Well, she's all piled up and I don't know how the hell I got out of her myself.

Bureaux: ``You haven't got a scratch, I hope.''

MacDonald: ``No, I'm doing all right. I'm only waiting for the typewriter to get going.''

Bureaux: That's exactly what I say, I imagine they'll give you 30 demerit marks now.''

But instead of demerit marks, MacDonald received a six-month suspension.

MacDonald said he would be retiring in the fall when he turns 60 and is disappointed to end his career on such a note. He started with the railroad in 1945, doing classified labor. He was the promoted to fireman in 1950 and has been an engineer since 1968.

MacDonald said the train left the mine site in the first place because the brakes had not been activated while the train was being put together.

He said the maximum amount of cars normally handled was 23, but that day there were 30 and the locomotive's brakes didn't hold. He said it had been normal procedure for years, as a time-saving measure, to put the train together first, then activate the brakes, rather than activating the brakes as each car was linked to the train.

However, on that day, he said there were more cars on the train than usual, which he was not made aware of and the extra weight forced the group of cars down the grade and out of control.

Since the accident, MacDonald said CN was using the crew involved as scapegoats.

Later on the day of the derailment, CN filed a bulletin saying it was mandatory for air brakes to be fully operational when switching. MacDonald said that proved CN didn't disapprove of the time-saving procedure because they waited until after an accident before filing the bulletin.

Meanwhile, CN officials are waiting for a full report on an inquiry into the derailment by the Canadian Transport Commission before releasing details on the circumstances surrounding the incident.