Emilie Wyrick thought she was in for a mere 13-hour train ride when she boarded the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight Train 11 in Eugene on Sunday, February 24. A personal trainer and body-worker from Napa, California, she was on her way back to the Bay Area after visiting some friends. But then, starting Sunday night through Monday, a veritable snowpocalypse dumped upwards of a foot of snow, downing dozens of trees in front of the train. Wyrick and 183 other passengers spent the better part of two days snowed aboard the train near Oakridge, Oregon, a town just over 40 miles southeast of Eugene where trains have gotten stuck by downed trees before in wind and rainstorms. We asked her to relive the harrowing ordeal.
Tell us how it all started. We left Eugene at like 5:30 pm, and I imagine [the train] hit the downed tree branch somewhere between 6 and 6:30 pm. It was funny, because [the train] slowed down and it stopped. No one felt the impact. It wasn’t like we ran into a tree on the tracks in front of us. A tree was overhanging, caught a line, and ripped [something] off. Our amazing MacGyver engineers were able to put together a temporary fix [that] was enough to get us out of the really wooded and remote area, and into the thriving metropolis of Oakridge. We were there from 7 pm on Sunday night, until 7 am on Tuesday morning.
Did you know right away you would be stuck for a while? At first it sounded like it wasn’t that big a deal, and they just needed to go put [a piece of the train] back on. And then [the conductor] came on again and said it’s a much, much bigger piece of damage than we expected, and we don’t have the tools, so we’re calling in a repair team. Then he said the blizzard is coming in, and the roads are closed, and the repair team can’t make it.
Was anyone freaking out? There were a few folks that had anxiety issues and some folks who had issues with being in small confined spaces, but everyone really did pull together. There was a lot of support. There was some sharing of some ... products, and I think that helped. Luckily, it’s Oregon, so that’s perfectly legal.
Were you able to get off the train at any point? For that entire 36 hours, they kept us packed in pretty tight, mostly for safety reasons. The town of Oakridge was without power, so there was really no place for us to go. In many ways, we were better off than the folks who lived in Oakridge, [because] we had power and heat.
How did the smokers deal with not being able to get off the train? I don’t [smoke], but many people did, and Amtrak was kind enough to let them open windows downstairs, so they could take care of that need. But after about 12 hours, most of their [cigarettes] had run out, so there were people jonesing pretty hard by the end of that trip.
Was there enough food for everyone? They served us breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining car until Monday night, [which is] when they pretty much ran out of anything that resembled nutritious food. And then it was just snack food, but it’s not like we were close to eating each other.
What was the bathroom situation? Technically they were well stocked for bathrooms. I was fortunate enough to purchase business class tickets, and there were four restrooms downstairs. But, relatively early on, a couple of people had had “accidents” in two of them, so those became pretty much unusable.
Was there booze available and did it run out? Yes, they had booze available, but you had to pay for it. And, oh yeah, it ran out sometime Monday.
How did the train staff handle all of this? They took a couple of hours of naps here and there, but they struggled with us to the bitter end. They kept their spirits up. Took amazing care of us. I can’t speak highly enough about that team of people on our train. They went above and beyond what you might expect. I’m very grateful for them.
When did you realize you would be spending Monday night on the train? We didn’t really know that we were gonna spend the night until the sun went down, and we still weren’t moving, and nothing happened. The conductor came on about every hour, on the hour, most of the day, until about 2 pm on Monday, and then there was really no further communication. I think by that time there was a lot of information out on news outlets, and Amtrak had put out an official statement. So those of us who had service were getting that information from the different outlets.
How did you keep yourself busy? I was pretty well stocked up. I had blankets and a pillow, and I had my iPad. I was one of the few people that had [a cellphone] signal, so I downloaded some stuff. Other people played cards or dominoes, [but] after the first 12 hours, there was less that people were doing and there was more camaraderie. Just passing the time by talking with each other. But I do know that people were singing and doing rap battles in the observation car.
How did you learn you were being rescued? We got this information from the official Amtrak statement that someone had found on CNN, [saying] the anticipated rescue time was 6 am. I couldn’t really sleep, and about 4:30 in the morning, all of a sudden this locomotive comes to the side, with just one engine, and I was like, “Oh my god! Is that our rescue train!?” It took them about two hours to get it coupled on and get us out of there, and then they had to wait about a half hour to dig out the switch so that we could move onto the track that they had cleared for us.”
When you finally started moving again, how did passengers respond? The entire train exploded with applause. Everyone was pretty elated. There were some tears as well. When the train started moving [Tuesday] morning around 7 am, we moved about 100 yards, and then we stopped again. And, it was like that for the next five hours. [Due] to the power outages, every signal for any road crossing or junction had to be manually turned by [the conductor] getting [on and] off the train. The issue was that overnight literally hundreds of trees had fallen across the train tracks. As we were coming back, you could see all the trees that they had cut and pushed to the side. It was like a game of pickup sticks the entire way, and it wasn’t like the trees had broken in half, they had literally come out from their roots.
What time did you get into Eugene? I believe it was around noon. It took about five hours to travel 45 miles. I thought, “Why didn’t I bring my snowshoes, I could have hiked this!”
What was it like to finally get off the train and go home? It was amazing to get off the train and walk and breathe fresh air. I didn’t even put a jacket on when I got off the train. I was just so excited. The Red Cross was there with breakfast and coffee for us. It was so kind of them. Amtrak got us all cabs to the airport, or wherever it was that we needed to be. Luckily, I was able to get on a flight from Portland to San Francisco, but I didn’t get home until after 3 am Wednesday morning.
Any final thoughts? Isn’t it absurd? It was so inconvenient and so annoying, and so frustrating. But I’m fine. I’m not injured. I was a little bit hungry for a while. But there are so many other things that could have happened, and I’m just full of gratitude that it was as pleasant as it was. The universe had some serious lessons for me to learn over the last 72 hours.