Close Call in a Tunnel – Guest Post

My dad

My dad

My arms and hands are so tired from shoveling and snowblowing during our recent three-day snowstorm (love my new snowblower, though!), that I thought I’d take it easy and post a story I typed up for my dad earlier this year. My dad, 95, is a retired electrical engineer (you can tell that from his writing). If he had succumbed to the incident he describes below, myself and about seven other relatives would not have been born.

This is an experience I had in about 1945 when I worked on the Great Northern Pacific Railway. My paycheck came from Great Northern but I also was assigned to work on the SPIS Railway, the Burlington Railroad and Northern Pacific.

For Great Northern, we tested rails from St. Paul to Seattle. My experience occurred while testing rails in the Cascade Tunnel in Washington. The tunnel is about eight miles long. On a clear day, a person can see the length of the tunnel, it is so straight. Our work train consisted of a gas-electric locomotive and a testing car.

Our train had three gasoline engines in service: one for the locomotive, one for the air brakes, and one for turning the 3-volt electric DC generator that was used to magnetize the track. We tested for fissures using a multi-volt meter and measuring the voltage drop along the 39 feet of rail while running 3,000 amperes through each rail.

The tunnel slanted a few degrees up to the west. The day of our test, the wind was blowing from the west, preventing natural ventilation. We were over half-way through it when the engineer let us know he needed help because of carbon monoxide gas poisoning. We had some beds in the car and he lay down in the bed. The other three other operators started passing out, too.

We decided the only choice was to keep going and run out of the tunnel. Only the conductor and I were still on our feet. The conductor didn’t know how to drive the train, so I had the job of running the locomotive to the west end of the tunnel. We made it all right and then continued onto the next town, where we got medical attention.

The doctor gave me some pills for carbon monoxide poisoning. Afterwards, I had the all-time worst headache, but recovered okay. The whole situation would have been serious if I had passed out. The conductor wouldn’t have known how to operate the locomotive, and we could have been stuck in that tunnel and died.

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