Huge Avalanche Buries Trains, Killing 96
It is hard to imagine the horror of what those people went through. There were 116 of them, sleeping inside two trains snowbound at Wellington Depot high in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The trains, one carrying passengers and the other mail, had been stuck at Wellington for six days. The passengers were no doubt irritated, as the storms of the past nine days had piled up so much snow that there was no going forward—and perhaps somewhat uneasy as well, looking up at the huge snowfields crouching on the steep slopes high above them. At 1:45 in the morning of March 1, 1910, disaster struck.
The weather had suddenly warmed, rain replacing snow, and a fierce thunderstorm raged atop Windy Mountain above the trains. Then a great bolt of lightning struck the mountain, triggering a massive avalanche of over ten acres of snow, ten feet deep. With a deep rumble the tons of snow roared down the steep sides and crashed into the parked trains, lifting the cars up as if they were toys and hurtling them over the precipice to plunge 200 feet into the canyon below.
The final tally: 93 people died a horrible death, to judge by the mutilated and dismembered bodies that were eventually recovered. An additional three workers sleeping in Wellington were also killed, buried by the river of snow. With 96 victims, the Wellington disaster remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history.
Some of the disaster’s survivors, as well as Wellington residents, scrambled to help, and 23 passengers were rescued. The following newspaper article gives some vivid details of both the catastrophe and the heroism of the rescuers. It was published by the Evening Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah) on the front page of its March 3, 1910, issue:
Death Roll Grows as Time Flies
Total Dead and Missing in Avalanche Now Eighty-four
Hope Abandoned for Those Buried
Graphic Account of Slide, Which Came During a Fierce Storm
Everett, Wash., March 3.—Railroad men who have been at the scene of the Wellington avalanche say the rescue of any of the persons reported missing would be a miracle, and that all are almost certainly dead, making the total eighty-four. The report that another slide had descended upon the workers is discredited here, where word would have been received if such an accident had occurred.
The difficulties of getting news are not decreased today. The snow is melting and the mountains are in tumult, with snow, rocks, trees and earth rolling and plunging down the steep places. It is hoped to have the telegraph line to Scenic Hot Springs restored today.
The bodies of the dead at Wellington are wrapped in blankets and laid upon the snow. No attempt will be made to bring them down the mountainside. It is not unlikely the track will be opened from the eastern side first, in which case the dead and wounded will be taken to Spokane. Many of the bodies are terribly mutilated.
Shortly before 2 o’clock Tuesday morning, when everyone on the two trains sidetracked at Wellington was in bed, ten acres of the mountainside that towered above the trains and, taking with it snow, earth and rocks, an avalanche plunged down into the canyon. The trains were picked up as if they were trifles and the whole mass piled at the bottom of the ravine 200 feet below.
Trains Deep under Debris
Looking down today at the debris of the avalanche, the cars are not in sight; they are under forty or fifty feet of snow and trees. One glance at the ruins explains why so many persons are missing and gives no hope that any of those buried is alive. The few men who are working in the snow cannot accomplish much, and it would take them months to dig out the cars. It is not practicable, if it were possible, to send an army of wreckers to Wellington. Food could not be supplied to them. When the track is opened the avalanche mass will be attacked by men equipped with machinery and all the bodies will be recovered.
Few believe that any of the sixty-seven listed as missing will be found alive, for it is now more than forty-eight hours since they were buried beneath the tons of snow and ice and twisted wreckage that swept over the ledge of the high line and dropped in a twisted heap to the bottom of the canyon 200 feet below.
The rescuers themselves are in a perilous position, for the danger from snowslides is not over.
Snow Eighteen Feet Deep
Warm winds accompanied by frequent showers are working havoc with the loose snow, which is eighteen feet deep on the level and frequently avalanches are seen shooting down the steep slopes. Rumors current last night that one of these avalanches has buried the relief party cannot be confirmed. No news of such a disaster has been received at Skykomish, the nearest telegraph office to Scenic and the Great Northern division offices here have received no word of it.
Men who made the trip to Scenic last night and who talked with survivors awaiting the relief trains there, bring back remarkable tales of the heroism displayed by survivors who were so fortunate as to escape from the avalanche without serious injury.
H. Purcell and Ira Clary, two conductors who extricated themselves uninjured from the mass of snow and wreckage, worked several hours endeavoring to release the less fortunate victims. When the two men crawled out of the snow they were barefooted, but by some chance they found Purcell’s boots and socks. Clary put on the socks and Purcell wore the boots, and together they dug in the snow searching for the injured.
A fireman was held fast near one of the locomotives. The steam from the engine had melted out a big cavern beneath the snow. While trying to release the imprisoned fireman, Purcell fell into this cauldron. He nearly lost his life, but Clary succeeded in pulling him out.
Women Were Tireless
Mrs. Shelton, wife of the night telegraph operator at Wellington, and Mrs. “Bob” Miles, wife of an engineer, were aroused by the noise of the avalanche and worked diligently caring for the wounded until the doctors and nurses came on the first relief train.
W. R. Bailey, who keeps the hotel at Wellington, was besieged by a score of half-naked, bleeding men, who asked for clothes to wear so that they might go back in the cold and join in the rescue work.
Dr. Cox, a Great Northern physician, who returned from Wellington last midnight with three survivors, Ray Forsyth, R. M. Lavelle and fireman S. A. Bates, brought the first direct news of the disaster. According to Dr. Cox, most of the injured were only slightly hurt. Sixteen of them are now in a temporary hospital at Wellington.
It now appears that the avalanche occurred at 1:45 a.m. instead of at 4:30 a.m. as first reported.
Men who come from the wreck say that the first intimation the passengers had of their danger was when the snow swept down upon them and lifted the cars bodily into the air and then dropped them over the precipice. One survivor described the sensation as similar to that felt when on a storm-tossed ship at sea.
Ray Forsyth says there were five women and seven children in his car. Three women and two children escaped, but the others are believed to have perished.
Storm Was Raging
A storm was raging and the lightning flaring incessantly at the time of the catastrophe. The men who succeeded in extricating themselves from the wreck carried on relief work by the electrical flashes.
On the severed hand of a woman, found yesterday, was a finger ring bearing initials which indicate that it was worn by Miss Katherine O’Reilly of Spokane, who is among the missing.
The exact number of dead will not be known for weeks, not until the snow, which is more than forty feet deep in the canyon, has melted. Workmen digging in the snow and wreckage report the finding of dismembered bodies, severed arms and hands. Frequently the first intimation that they are digging near a body comes when they uncover a large patch of blood-red snow.
Undertakers’ supplies and more men were sent on a relief train early today. The bodies will be embalmed and kept at Wellington until the railroad line is open, as it is impracticable to bring them out on sledges.
When the snow which blocks the tracks will be cleared away is uncertain. A large force of men is attacking the drifts on the west side and snow plows are being brought from North Dakota to be used in the opening of the line from the east.
Ira Clary and H. Purcell, conductors on the rotary plows, give vivid accounts of their experiences. They were asleep in one of the vacant mail cars which were swept off the ledge, but escaped without serious injury.
Thought It End of World
“I thought the end of the world had come,” said Clary, in describing his experiences. “The car in which I was asleep appeared to be picked up and tossed about like a feather. Then it began to roll over and tumbled down the mountainside. Suddenly it hit a big tree which stood in our path, and the car popped open like a shell. When I came to my senses I found myself buried under six feet of snow. I was clear of the wreckage and was able to dig myself out.
“I heard Purcell calling and hurried to his assistance. I dug him out and then we started to get out the others. We rescued several who were unhurt and did what we could to assist those pinned beneath the wreckage.”
According to the story of the trainmen who survived the disaster, the place where they trains were standing at Wellington was believed to be the safest on that part of the line. In former years no snowslide had ever reached that place and it was selected for that reason.
Fifteen Bodies Recovered
Fifteen bodies have been recovered from the snow heap of the avalanche that carried away [the] trains Tuesday morning, and there is no hope that any of the sixty-nine persons missing is alive.
One hundred and fifty men, mostly volunteers, are working to uncover the dead, but they accomplish little, their task being so great owing to the vast mass of debris under which the cars are buried. When the track is opened the railroad will bring machinery and tackle and an army of men. It will then be possible to uncover the dead in a short time. The railroad, with plows, wrecking trains and hundreds of men, is working on both sides of the Cascade Mountains to open the tracks. Even after the bodies are recovered they cannot be taken out to the world.
Dead May Exceed Eighty-five
There is a growing belief that the number of dead will go higher than eighty-four. It is said a number of laborers were on the train whose names are not given in the list of missing.
The wounded are at the Wellington bunkhouse, which has been converted into a hospital, and they have physicians, nurses, food and all comforts. All supplies are packed up the steep trail from Scenic on men’s backs.
The most pitied among the injured is Mrs. William Starrett of Chemainus, B.C., who is severely bruised. She was returning from Spokane, where her husband was killed in a railroad accident two months ago. With her were her three children and her father and mother. Two of the children and her father, William May, were killed by the avalanche.