The Birdtail Creek Train disaster of 1968 killed three men and shook the tightly knit railway community of two provinces. Fifty years later, the memories of those men are kept alive by the families they left behind.
On the evening of April 22, 1968, Canadian National Railways (CN) freight train number 409 departed Winnipeg for points west. It was 97 cars in length and powered by four diesel engines, which was considered an average-sized train at the time.
Around midnight, the train pulled into the CN station at Rivers, Man., for a crew change and was soon back on its way with a five-man crew from Saskatchewan.
In the lead engine was 36-year-old Herbert Degerstedt, the head-end brakeman. He joined CN soon after high school and already had 16 years of service to his name. Back home in Melville, Sask., were his wife Elaine and two young children.
Alongside Degerstedt was Robert Bruce Emerson, 50, the most experienced crew member, having worked for CN for 24 years. Born and raised in Hamiota, Man., Emerson distinguished himself by being one of the first men from the region to enlist with the RCAF at the start of the Second World War.
After the war he joined CN and, in 1965, he, his wife Marjorie and their five children relocated to Yorkton, Sask.
Seated back in the fourth engine was locomotive fireman Alfred Varga, 40, of Melville. The father of five had been with CN for 15 years and was president of the Melville local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen.
In the caboose were conductor James Boyd and rear-end trainman Robert George Reid, both from Melville.
Around 2:45 a.m., the train was travelling across the Birdtail Sioux First Nation approaching a bridge over the Birdtail Creek, located about 100 kilometres northwest of Brandon near the village of St. Lazare. The 88-metre-long bridge consisted of a steel-supported centre span of 24 metres flanked by wooden trestle approaches at either end.
As the train crossed the bridge, catastrophe struck when the four engines and first 22 freight cars dropped through the western approach into the 20-metre-deep gorge below.
The men in the caboose, which remained on the tracks, radioed for assistance and CN emergency crews were dispatched.
'On the block that we lived on there were 14 homes and 11 were railroaders, so we all did support each other. I think some of the neighbours had just as hard a time as we did'— Keith Degerstedt
Charles "Buck" Morgan, a fellow CN man from Melville, was one of the first rescuers on the scene and found the injured Varga who had been thrown from the train.
Varga’s son, Rob, says when Morgan found his father he was still conscious, "(Morgan) came and spent a little time with Dad and Dad was cold, so he gave him his jacket and he left." When he returned a short time later, Varga had died due to internal injuries.
Morgan would later testify at an inquest that during their conversation Varga told him that "the bridge just fell out from under us."
Degerstedt and Emerson could not be accounted for at the time. They were presumed dead as their lead engine was buried beneath layers of burning rail cars.
The greatest hindrance to fighting the fierce blaze, which was fed by diesel fuel and oil from the engines and fanned by strong winds, was the inaccessibility of the site. Located kilometres from the nearest road, fire trucks from nearby municipalities could not get to the scene.
A CN fire crew was brought in by rail and 10 firefighters from Canadian Forces Base Rivers arrived by helicopter. All tried their best to battle the fire by pumping muddy water from the Birdtail Creek onto it.
The following day, as the fire began to subside, the badly burned bodies of Degerstedt and Emerson were discovered. The crash closed the CN main line for several days as the salvage effort proved to be as difficult as fighting the fire.
Four days after the crash it was reported that equipment brought in by rail to retrieve the wreckage from the gorge was sitting idle as the steel cables had snapped under the weight and new, stronger cables had to be sent from Winnipeg.
In the end, the decision was made to bury the wreckage where it lay.
District coroner Dr. J. Edward Hudson called an inquest into the crash, which started on May 23, 1968 in Hamiota. The first of 10 witnesses called to testify were senior CN staff.
S. J. Wise, the railway’s superintendent of transportation for the region, testified the company believed the bridge’s western approach had been damaged by fire and weakened to the point that it collapsed under the weight of the crossing train.
This was backed up by a CN structural engineer who said their investigation had found charred remains of wood from the approach buried underneath the lead engine, a place where debris was shielded from the post-crash fire.
The culprit, they felt, was another train that had under-braked while passing over the same bridge four hours earlier, sending hot metal filings onto the approach, sparking the fire.
The surviving members of the crew, particularly James Boyd, questioned the company’s explanation.
During his testimony, Boyd asked "If there’d been a fire as everyone here says, why didn’t we see anything?" He noted it was a clear night and both men in the caboose could see at least a mile ahead of the train.
After hearing from 10 witnesses, the coroner’s jury deliberated and returned with a finding of "accidental death" for all three men. They made no further recommendations, nor did they single out any party as contributing to the crash.
While the conclusion of the inquest brought an end to the media coverage of the crash, for the families and communities involved the memories of the tragedy live on.
Keith Degerstedt is the son of Herbert Degerstedt. He was six years old at the time of his father’s death and his sister, Rhonda, was four.
Degerstedt says the crash was devastating for family members, but their community helped them through the hardest times.
"On the block that we lived on there were 14 homes and 11 were railroaders, so we all did support each other," he said. "I think some of the neighbours had just as hard a time as we did."
In what some may consider an odd career choice, Degerstedt, like his father, also went to work for the railway. While his mother, Elaine, was not happy with the decision, "In the late seventies, you either got a job on the rails or you left Melville. (That’s) just the way it was."
In his 38-year career with CN, Degerstedt passed over the site where the wreckage of his father’s train was buried "hundreds of times" and says he felt a different emotion each time, ranging from anger to sorrow and even fearfulness.
In 2000, Degerstedt spearheaded the erection of a cairn outside the historic Melville train station that includes the names of the men killed that day. The unveiling ceremony brought together members of all three families.
Just a few doors down from the Degerstedts was the Varga family home.
Rob Varga, who was eight at the time of the crash, was the eldest of five children. The youngest, Janine, was just seven weeks old.
The first time Varga went to the crash site was on the 25th anniversary of his father’s death. He said he has never returned "and probably never will."
Knowing that his father survived the crash only to die before medical attention arrived was something that had long troubled Varga, "I often wondered... if it would had happened closer to an urban centre, would dad still be with us?"
Years later, Varga got solace when he read a copy of the coroner’s report. It concluded his father’s internal injuries were too severe for him to have survived.
Varga agrees with Degerstedt that the bond shared among railroaders in Melville was a help to the family. He also credits his large extended family for making sure he did not want for anything growing up.
He saves his greatest praise for his mother, Adeline.
"My Mom is the toughest woman I know, mentally and physically", he said, noting she never remarried. "She made up her mind that she wasn’t going to pay any attention to having another man in her life. She had her kids. She sacrificed everything for us."
As devastating as the crash was, there is a chilling footnote that was not mentioned in the media at the time.
Earl Symonds was CN’s operator, or train controller, at Rivers that night. He says, "What normally happened is the freight train came into Rivers ahead of passenger train number one. It went into the siding at Rivers and when the passenger train came along, it proceeded and the freight train followed."
That passenger train was the Super Continental, CN’s trans-continental service, which would have had at least 100 passengers on board at that time of year.
That night, Symonds recalls, "the passenger train was about 40 minutes late, so when the freight train came along we decided it could go ahead of the passenger train."
That decision unknowingly prevented what would have been the deadliest train disaster in Canadian history.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or ten - to tell.