Stephen Schwiff was in a meeting in Hood River Friday when he first saw the smoke.
Others took to their phones and quickly had news about the huge black plume: “They said, ‘Oh, there’s a railroad disaster in Mosier. They closed the highway,’” Schwiff recounted.
“And I said, ‘I have a son in Mosier.’”
Worried and confused, he figured he’d be proactive and get on the road to fetch his son Nicholas, 14, an eighth grader at Mosier Middle School. “I drove by Mosier and saw the smoke billowing,” he recounted.
Schwiff was relieved to get a call from Nicholas as he drove via Washington’s Highway 14 to pick him up in The Dalles.
Some 220 students were evacuated to Wahtonka Community School after eight Union Pacific oil cars derailed Friday, shortly after noon.
Interstate 84 closed between Hood River and The Dalles, but the Hood River toll bridge waived the toll for rerouted traffic that was forced onto the Washington side.
Makenna Losee is in fourth grade at Mosier Community School.
When the derailment occurred, maybe a half mile to the west, she saw “big balls of gray and white and brown and black smoke.”
“Two girls were crying because their houses were right next to the crash. There were a bunch of people crying because their houses were right there. Seeing them cry made me cry. Everyone was crying and sad and worried about their parents,” Losee said.
Buses eventually arrived to evacuate them to The Dalles. The girl next to her on the bus was crying, and the ride was “horrifying,” Makenna said. “I was thinking what would happen if the bus crashed. I started to feel better when I got here,” she said of Wahtonka.
Mosier Community School Executive Director/Principal Brian Schimel said the school sheltered students in place after the train derailment.
When he called the school district transportation department, they were already working to dispatch buses. Three buses left around 1:15 to take students and staff to Wahtonka.
The last bus arrived in The Dalles around 2 p.m. Students stayed in the gym and were entertained by teachers with arts projects or by playing hoops. “It’s like free gym time for them,” Schimel said.
“What was really cool was we immediately had counselors from the Mid-Columbia Center for Living,” Schimel said. “They were fantastic.”
He plans to have the counselors back at the school on Monday.
Makenna’s mom, Tricia Losee, first heard about the derailment when she got a text from her dad. She was concerned about Makenna, who has anxiety and worries about fires.
And both of her children have asthma, with smoke being a major trigger.
She called the school and learned they had their inhalers on the bus with them, “so that made me feel much better.”
“They emptied the medicine cabinet out in a bag and put it on the bus,” she said. “They did a good job.”
She left her job in Hood River right away and it took her an hour to get to The Dalles to get her kids. People who left later than her took much longer to arrive, she said.
When she got to Makenna, she said, “My daughter was just scared. She didn’t really understand everything that was truly going on. My son was ok. He wasn’t bothered by the situation.”
Losee praised the school for its handling of the emergency.
While she and Schwiff said they did not get texts or emails from the school, Schimel said texts and emails were sent out, and teachers who had signed up for the alert system got the messages.
Schimel lauded his staff for keeping control of the situation.“The staff was very competent at keeping the kids intact,” he said.
After the initial rush of parents who came to collect their children, teachers finally started calling parents of children who were still at the school. Just a handful remained by around 3:30 p.m.
“I appreciate the communication and support from the district, and the kids and staff members were calm, cool and they reacted well,” said Schimel.
It wasn’t his first evacuation, either. In 2007, when he was interim superintendent in Athena, a small town in eastern Oregon, a chemical accident forced the evacuation of the high school and elementary school. “That was much more of an incident than this one,” he said.