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Fight or flight: Residents scramble as toxic cloud moves in

MINOT, N.D. -- Mike Johnson jumped from his bed early Jan. 18 to the sound of a thunderstorm so fierce that it shook his house. Yet this wasn't the season of claps and booms. It was mid-winter, with snow on the ground and the temperature dipping ...

MINOT, N.D. -- Mike Johnson jumped from his bed early Jan. 18 to the sound of a thunderstorm so fierce that it shook his house.

Yet this wasn't the season of claps and booms. It was mid-winter, with snow on the ground and the temperature dipping 6 below zero.

Johnson, startled but still groggy at 1:34 a.m., wondered what had interrupted his family's peaceful night.

"Then all of a sudden I hear a second boom," he said. "And then I heard the trees crunching and you could hear the metal.

"My first thought was a plane went down."

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Johnson ran to a bathroom window and saw his first sign that the weather was not to blame.

"I looked out there, and all you could see out there was a glow. It looked like a huge sunrise to the north,' he said.

"I remember looking up at the sky, and you could just see the blue sky and the stars."

Seconds later, a white cloud rushed toward the house and Johnson smelled trouble.

A Canadian Pacific train had derailed about 1,000 feet from the Tierrecita Vallejo neighborhood and poured about 250,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a chemical commonly used as a farm fertilizer, onto the ground.

Exposed to bitter-cold air, the liquid vaporized into a toxic cloud that hung low in the Souris River Valley. A 6 mph breeze nudged it along, into Johnson's neighborhood at the edge of Minot and then east into town.

With the power knocked out by the train wreck, Johnson and his family scrambled to grab their jackets and boots before attempting to drive to safety.

"We could smell something," said Johnson's wife, Sue Ellen. "We thought gas. We thought our house was going to blow up.

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"We need to get out. Get out of the house was our first instinct."

'A touch with death'

A sharp, winding road leads into Tierrecita Vallejo before it turns to a gravel path looping past groves of trees and the 21 homes in the neighborhood. Many residents moved there to enjoy the outdoors and escape city living, even relying on wells for water.

The explosive derailment left the Johnsons and many other residents scurrying to get out of their secluded neighborhood and into town -- or anywhere free from the suffocating ammonia plume.

John Grabinger, 38, pulled a cord to open his garage door. When it didn't open, he drove through it. He crashed his car into a neighbor's garage across the street, then collapsed while trying to make it back to his house. Rescuers retrieved his body more than three hours later.

One derailed car catapulted 1,000 feet through the air, clipped the corner of a home and stopped in Kerry Beechie's back yard.

Kerry, 38, and his wife, Becky, 37, watched the vapor blanket their home. They feared the worst and hoped to find shelter at the Johnsons' home.

"We felt and heard the explosion," said Kerry Beechie, an assistant manager at the local Scheels All Sports. "I saw this big black mass go by. I saw the sparks. I kind of shuddered to myself. I didn't know if I wanted to get out of bed."

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The events that followed still haunt the Beechies.

"What we went through, those first 10 minutes, I feel like we've had a touch with death," Kerry said.

'Are you coming?'

At 1:41 a.m., Kerry dialed 911 on a cell phone to find out the source of the explosion and foul smell.

Fearing fire, his wife opened the front door and told Kelsey, their 12-year-old daughter, to run next door to the Johnson home. The Beechies' younger daughter, Brooke, stayed in the house.

The thick fog swallowed Kelsey as she turned north, opposite of the Johnsons' home. She collided with her father's fish house parked in the driveway, then fell to the ground, sucking in the deadly gas and gasping for oxygen. She was lost.

A 911 tape recorded the Beechies' confused and frantic pleas for help. The couple call out to their daughter, who has disappeared in the cloud, and wonder what will happen to her. 911calls from Beechies as they search for their lost daughter

"Is she going to die out there?" Becky asked the dispatcher. "You guys have to hurry."

"We've got people on the way to help," the dispatcher responded. "They're on the way."

Becky panicked.

"I don't hear any sirens," she says. "I'm going to kill myself. Is she going to be OK out there?"

The Beechies scrambled to come up with a rescue plan while staying on the line with the dispatcher. They gave the cell phone to Brooke and dashed outside. Kerry and Becky began yelling for Kelsey to follow their voices.

"She's there!" Becky yelled. "Kerry, go, go!"

"Are you coming?" 8-year-old Brooke asked the dispatcher.

"They're coming, honey," the dispatcher said.

Ten minutes after Kerry called 911, he clasped his hands around Kelsey and dragged her inside. He later found her shoes lying in the front yard.

"I think she spent a lot of time trying to breathe on the ground," he said. "She said that she thought it was a fire and if she got to the road, she would be OK."

The Beechies renewed their plea for help.

"She's inside. She's bad," Kerry told the dispatcher. "She's having a hell of a time breathing."

"You have to get us out of it, God dangit!" Becky screamed in the background.

After 18 minutes on the phone, the Beechies hung up and waited for rescue crews to arrive.

Kelsey told her parents that her feet felt cold. Kerry, an avid hunter and ice fisherman, thought Kelsey's feet were frostbitten and wrapped her in blankets.

"It's the worst feeling that you can have as a parent," Kerry said.

The Jesus meeting

While the Beechies searched for their lost daughter, their neighbors, the Johnsons, jumped in their Plymouth Voyager minivan and attempted to drive out of the subdivision.

As Mike Johnson inched the van out of the garage, 21-year-old son Nate tried to navigate from a rear seat, struggling to see through the dense cloud.

"He went from one side of the car to the other and said, 'Dad, I can't see, even 2 inches,' and we inched along as though we were walking," Sue Ellen Johnson recalled.

"As we were smelling this, our throats got tighter and tighter, and we began hitting trees and I started screaming."

Mike drove slowly along the neighborhood's gravel road, his lungs and eyes burning from exposure to the ammonia.

Privately, he vowed to fight until the end.

As the van inched along, it scraped against branches and trees before getting stuck in a ravine.

Mike shifted gears to rock the van back and forth in the snow and somehow managed to free it from the ditch.

In the deepest moment of crisis, Sue Ellen, who sings each week at church, rallied the family with a solemn vow.

"I couldn't breathe anymore, and I touched my husband and my son and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting," she said.

"I said, 'If you don't have Jesus in your heart right now, you had better get him in your heart right now because I'm not going to heaven without you.' "

After 20 minutes in the anhydrous ammonia cloud, she gave tissues to Mike and Nate to cover their faces. She declared that they would die inside the van.

Mike drove slowly along the road and gained a sense of direction when the family saw a neighbor's nameplate sign. Then, he saw the glimmering chrome of a pickup bumper at neighbor Tom Lundeen's home. "If he wouldn't have had his pickup there, we would be dead," Sue Ellen said.

"I just get goose bumps. We drove up and we started laying on our horn. In 22 minutes, we could hardly breathe. Our noses, our eyes were burning, and no one was coming."

A candle for survivors

Tom Lundeen's first memory of Jan. 18 was the sound of trees snapping as a loud noise moved closer to his home.

"All of a sudden it quit," he said. "I thought a plane had crashed."

Lundeen, 48, and his wife, Nan, 42, rose from bed to look for candles and flashlights in the dark home. A minute or two later, they smelled the pungent odor of ammonia.

Tom, who had survived a 1986 fire at a store he owned, opened a garage door. He slammed it shut and knew the family couldn't leave because of the cloud outside.

The family covered their faces with wet towels and sealed the doors with towels to prevent the vapor from coming inside. "From that point on, we were downstairs," Tom said.

A neighbor called the Lundeens on their cell phone and told them rescuers would be there to save them.

Tom's son, 18-year-old Mike, ran outside when the family heard a honking horn.

"I don't think he knew it was so difficult to breathe. ... He ran outside with total disregard for his safety," Tom said. "He thought it was somebody to save his father, his mother, his sister."

Instead of finding rescuers, Mike Lundeen found the Johnsons' van.

The Johnsons were startled, and ecstatic, when the Lundeen boy arrived.

"We couldn't see him," Sue Ellen said. "Out of the white cloud he banged on the side of our car."

The Johnsons ran into the Lundeen house, where the two families huddled in the dark basement. Tom lighted two candles. He placed one on a pool table in the basement and another on the brick stairs outside to let rescuers know there were survivors inside.

The families covered themselves with blankets to stay warm and waited for information about a rescue effort.

"They were telling us the time and the weather' on the radio, Sue Ellen said. "Nothing on the radio, just program stuff. We were like, 'Please, please, something.'"

They took turns looking out a tiny basement window for signs of rescuers. Sue Ellen said they spotted headlights from an ambulance outside sometime between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m.

"We were wondering why it was taking them so long," Tom recalled. "We didn't know what they were doing."

Finally, about 6:30 a.m., they saw an ambulance moving slowly down the road as firefighters in full-body protective suits walked in front.

"They looked like Martians," she said. "They had all the clothes on and masks on and each had a flashlight. We thought, 'Here comes rescuers. Thank God we're going to be rescued.' "

A few bangs on the front door soon followed.

Tom went upstairs and answered the door, where two rescuers stood wearing breathing masks.

"They took us to an old, old school bus," Sue Ellen said. "We all went out with rags on our faces, and it was so cold. The smell was so bad, but you could see to get to the bus."

An old school bus

The Beechies waited out the cloud in their recreational room, wearing winter jackets for warmth and using flashlights to signal for help.

Kerry frequently talked that morning on a cell phone with Dennis Bense, store manager at Scheels, for updates on the rescue effort.

"He told me that two firefighters would go door to door and pull all the families out," Kerry said. "We sat here forever and watched. In my mind, I didn't know if we were going to die."

The Beechies watched the rescue bus go past their home, then back into their driveway and drive away. They stood outside their home, waving their arms, urging the driver to stop.

"We could see the Beechies making a rainbow with their flashlights, saying 'Help us, help us,'" said Sue Ellen Johnson, who by that time was on board the bus.

"We were screaming, 'They're alive! They're flashing their flashlights! Stop!' And this bus driver said, 'We can't ... another bus will be coming.'"

The bus, about a third full, left the neighborhood and took residents to a triage set up at Behm's Truck Stop about a mile away.

The Beechies, desperate for help, got into their van and drove out of the neighborhood to an emergency shelter.

Along the way, as the sun rose and the ammonia cloud thinned, the Beechies saw daughter Kelsey's eyes for the first time.

"Her eyes were solid, blood red," Kerry said.

The father and mother cried.

The girls asked what was wrong, and Becky told them "we were happy to be out."

At the shelter, paramedics decided Kelsey needed emergency care because her feet were burned raw from exposure to ammonia. She also suffered second- and third-degree burns to her lips, mouth and eyes.

In the dark, Kerry and Becky didn't know the extent of Kelsey's injuries.

"We didn't know how bad she was," Becky said. "I'm glad we didn't know."

Friday in "Derailed Lives': Night owls trapped at Behm's Truck Stop battle the toxic cloud to save sleeping truckers.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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