Train derailment commemorated
Weyauwega event marks 25th anniversary
By Angie Landsverk
The March 4 event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the train derailment in Weyauwega included remarks, songs, memories and a few trains.
The first train passed behind the scene of the late afternoon event shortly before the program began.
Set up in the parking lot at Cenex Co-op, the event took place near the railroad tracks where in the early morning hours of March 4, 1996, a Wisconsin Central freight trained derailed.
Some in attendance chuckled at the sight of the train.
Weyauwega-Fremont High School Band members turned to watch it.
The derailment happened years before any of them were born.
“Thirty-seven cars derailed right near this very site. Most of those involved will never forget,” said Mary Jane Baehman, president of the Weyauwega Area Historical Society.
As she spoke, another train headed down the tracks.
Jim Baehnman was the assistant fire chief of the Weyauwega Fire Department when he got the call from Waupaca County at 5:55 a.m. on that day 25 years ago.
Gary Hecker, the fire chief at the time, was vacationing on a cruise, Baehman said.
Fourteen cars were filled with propane.
“Several of the 14 tank cars ruptured and ignited,” she said. “I’m sure everyone has a story to tell.”
Judy Wiesman and her husband Ron lived on Second Avenue, not far from the scene of the derailment.
Around 6 a.m. that day, she heard a booming noise.
“I told my husband I think the co-op blew up,” she said.
At the time, Wiesman was Weyauwega’s mayor and also a photojournalist for the Appleton Post Crescent.
“I grabbed my camera,” she said. “I made my way to the phone in the dark.”
She called the newspaper, went to the scene and saw the first fire truck headed there.
When she returned home, “our phone was dead. We had no lights,” Wiesman said.
They left their home – not to return for weeks.
“The propane meant everyone must leave,” she said.
The fire burned for more than two weeks and resulted in the emergency evacuation of about 2,300 people for 18 days, including the entire city of Weyauwega.
The state sent its very best to assist, Wiesman said.
“We were all in this together, much like the pandemic,” she said. “But there were no political overtones.”
When Wiesman was later asked to talk about the event, she stressed the importance of remembering the three Ps.
“Take your pets, your pills and your purse,” she said.
Her faith got her and others through that time, she said.
When they returned to their homes, “we returned to each other,” Wiesman said.
Baehnman said when he looks back at all the things that could have gone wrong, he is “convinced the Almighty was looking out for us.”
The 14 tanks filled with propane meant there were more than 460,000 gallons of propane involved, he said.
“It was the largest single propane incident in U.S. history,” Baehnman said.
He said the entire city was evacuated in less than five hours.
“There were no deaths and only one injury reported during the 14-day fire,” Baehnman said. “It was the safest disaster in American history.”
They were prepared to evacuate people all the way to Fremont, but did not have to.
Changes in mutual aid
Tom Cullen, Weyauwega’s current fire chief, was also involved in fighting the fire.
He said one change since then involves fire apparatus, while another is related to how departments get others to respond for mutual aid.
“It’s formatted to grow with the incident,” he said.
Cellphones and social media are also tools used today that did not exist 25 years ago.
Cullen said the incident command system is always used, with all personnel taught and trained for big and small emergencies.
The 1996 train derailment was a low frequency, high risk event, he said.
“Can this happen again? Well, the answer is yes,” Cullen said.
Trains carrying propane and other chemicals pass through the county, so it is always a possibility, he said.
“Believe me. I hope it never happens again here,” Cullen said.
Baehman thanked everyone who kept the community safe during that time.
The March 4 event was organized by Wega Arts and the Weyauwega Area Historical Society.
It served as a kickoff for a project that involves making a documentary film about the derailment and the community.
The film is to include people recounting memories, as well as news footage and a report on the national impact on fire department training and other safety issues.
They plan to show the film on March 4, 2022, at the Gerold Opera House.