10 In Septa Railcar Saved From Swollen Schuylkill

Posted: September 17, 1999

SEPTA railcar 284 radioed for help at 1:03 p.m. Trapped inside the car by the rising waters of the Schuylkill, swamped just 100 yards short of the Conshohocken station, were 10 people.

Racing to the scene in her Camaro, firefighter Jean Lukens was one of the first at the riverbank yesterday. Through the driving rain, Lukens glimpsed the headlight of the white train car and the faces of passengers and crew behind a rain-streaked window.

"I felt helpless," Lukens said. "They were yelling for help."

Before emergency workers were able to bring the 10 people to safety yesterday afternoon, a rescue boat would capsize, flinging firefighters and SEPTA passengers into the water. Two rescue workers were washed 250 yards from Plymouth Creek across flooded areas and almost into the Schuylkill. Both survived by clinging to tree branches for more than two hours.

The Schuylkill's muddy waters shorted the train's electrical power supply shortly before 1 p.m. The Norristown R6 line railcar, which was heading into Conshohocken from Norristown, was on tracks sandwiched by the Schuylkill and Plymouth Creek.

"They tried to move the train," SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said. "They couldn't because it was shorted out."

On board were three crew members - a conductor, engineer and trainman. The passengers were two women and five men.

As steel drums and tree limbs floated past the bank where Lukens stood, Conshohocken Police Officer Matt Messenger and four firefighters set out in a metal rowboat, tethered by an orange rope to the fender of a fire engine.

Tossed by floodwaters, the rowboat reached the train. Everyone on board donned life vests. Six of the passengers joined three firefighters remaining in the boat, and they set off for the bank about 50 yards away.

But rescue crews lost control of the tiny craft in the waist-deep storm water pouring from nearby Plymouth Creek. Battered against nearby trees, the rowboat flipped against a chain-link fence, throwing all nine people overboard as Lukens watched in horror.

"All I could hear was one woman screaming," Lukens said. "At that point the water would have been over my head if I had tried to get in."

The capsizing of the boat swept two rescue workers through a hole in the fence and 250 yards down Plymouth Creek and out to the Schuylkill, where they grabbed tree limbs.

Others scrambled from the current by clinging to branches and trees on higher ground while awaiting rescue.

As the Spring Mill Fire Company launched a rubber dinghy to bring the wet passengers and rescue workers to safety, other emergency workers tied an orange line from the SEPTA train car to trees on the riverbank.

In the swirling, waist-deep waters, two rescue workers on the SEPTA train car and those on shore took turns escorting the remaining passenger and the three crew members as they used the rope to help get them safely ashore.

"They were wading in the water up to their thighs," said Hans Fuhrmeister of the Swedesburg Fire Company.

Washington Fire Company firefighter Beth Januzelli said firefighters in the second rescue boat hung onto trees and braced themselves on a bulldozer to help two female SEPTA passengers clinging to trees and a fence after the first boat capsized.

"When we went to take them on the second boat, they were very upset," she said.

But she said she coaxed the trembling women aboard, assuring them, " 'The Good Lord's with you. This one is not going to capsize.' "

At 3:15 p.m., the dinghy motored back to the edge of the water, which by then had turned the parking lot of the Conshohocken rail station into a muddy lake.

One firefighter carried over his shoulder a limp SEPTA passenger draped in a fireman's coat. One more was lifted by hands and feet from the rescue boat to waiting medical personnel.

Several passengers were treated at area hospitals for hypothermia and released. SEPTA employees whisked the three crew members home from the red-brick Washington Fire Company across the street, where they were taken after the rescue.

Sipping a cup of tea to try to get warm back at the firehouse, Januzelli said she was scared at the time but in control.

"You put your fear behind you," she said, "and you concentrate on what needs to be done."

In all, the rescue of the Norristown R6 line train was an eerie repeat of a similar rescue at the same spot during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, veteran firefighters said.

"I feel relieved that everybody is safe, and nobody is seriously injured," Lukens said, wiping her damp red hair from her face. "I can't wait to get out of these freezing clothes."

At 5:30 p.m., another call came into the firehouse. A person was trapped in a car, engulfed by floodwaters at 10th Avenue and Colwell Lane. The fire engines pulled out again.

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