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Digging out the truth

The White Cascade The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche Gary Krist Henry Holt: 318 pp., $26

January 28, 2007|Mark S. Luce | Mark S. Luce teaches English at the Barstow School in Kansas City, Mo., and at the University of Kansas.

IT really was a dark and stormy night.

On March 1, 1910, after six days of ceaseless snow up in Stevens Pass in the craggy Cascade Mountains, warmer temperatures brought in the rain. And the preternatural winter lightning. And the rumbling thunder. Off to the side of the main Great Northern Railway tracks, perched above a steep canyon and below a sparsely wooded, snowpacked mountainside, rested two trains -- the Seattle Express and the Fast Mail. The trains had been in that position, stranded, for six days, despite pleas from the passengers to get them moving.

At 1:42 a.m., physics happened. The moisture from the rain soaked into snow tens of feet deep. The weight became too much. An avalanche half a mile wide barreled down the mountainside and smashed into the cars, hurling them down the rest of the mountain in a twisted amalgam of steel, steam, wood and flesh. The official body count tallied 96 people, including several unidentified railroad laborers, making it the most horrendous avalanche accident in U.S. history.

Gary Krist's smart page-turner, "The White Cascade," documents this disaster with verve, humanity and purpose. Krist's story goes beyond the recounting of a tragic event and becomes a study of individual heroism and failure, corporate avarice and the era's misguided faith that humans and their technology could tame Mother Nature. Unlike so many other worst-ever (fill in the blank) books that breathlessly zoom through ship collisions, hurricanes, tornadoes, mine explosions, wilderness misadventures and all varieties of inferno, "The White Cascade" actually understates its case, with Krist focusing more of his research and clear prose on narrative, character and cause. The avalanche and the initial rescue effort don't occur until page 157 and take up a mere 16 pages. In a lesser author's hands, this would prove an insuperable disappointment. Here, though, the lack of emphasis leaves room for something richer -- filling a symbolic function too, since the avalanche lasted all of a minute.

Krist is better known as a novelist ("Bad Chemistry," "Chaos Theory" and "Extravagance"), and his novelist chops routinely provide small, good touches. He writes that on the evening of the avalanche, "The men returned inside after a time and got ready for bed. Soon porter Lucius Anderson was making his final pass through the silent Pullman, cleaning up the empty glasses and extinguishing the lights." Even though readers know what will happen, the suspense ratchets up, as Krist coils his language with crystalline imagery and implicit threat without screaming, "Oh my God, they're all going to die!"

Throughout the six-day ordeal, Krist returns to James H. O'Neill, a tireless, up-by-the-bootstraps railway superintendent who must balance Great Northern's fiscal need to keep the trains moving with the realities of weather in the Cascades. Many of O'Neill's snow shovelers quit, braving death to walk off the mountain. His rotary plows, technological wonders that they are, can't keep up with the piling snow and increasingly frequent avalanches through the pass, and they break down; coal to power the trains and plows runs short; the telegraph wires keep breaking; and the angry passengers on the Seattle Express demand to be evacuated (darn near impossible) or moved back into a tunnel (not particularly well-ventilated or good for their fragile mental state) so that they will be out of danger.

Great Northern's contract to bring U.S. mail out to the Northwest will be up soon, and every delay costs the company money and further rankles O'Neill's boss, railroad magnate and all-around cheapskate James J. Hill. To top it off, O'Neill's wife, Berenice, waits at home, pregnant with their second child. Rather than panic or throw up his hands, O'Neill digs in, going days without sleep, directing efforts to clear the tracks and being the well-meaning, hard-working fellow he has always been. But he does not meet with the passengers, and on the night of the disastrous avalanche he is getting much-needed sleep in the town of Scenic Hot Springs, four miles down the mountain.

This respite from hell comes back to haunt O'Neill, who, although lauded for his efforts, also gets burned by various newspapers and one particularly angry surviving passenger, Henry White. At an inquest following the accident, White testifies, "So, through lack of coal and lack of help, we were forced to remain in that position, right at the base of a thousand-foot mountain." To a question about whether the stranded passengers had asked railroad officials to be moved, he responds, "That was the request we were going to make of Mr. O'Neill, but he was too sleepy to come around and see us. That little sleepy spell cost [countless] lives."

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