Weyauwega marks 25th anniversary of train derailment

An aerial shot of the train derailment in Weyauwega in March, 1996
An aerial shot of the train derailment in Weyauwega in March, 1996(WBAY)
Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 5:41 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 4, 2021 at 8:27 PM CST
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WEYAUWEGA, Wis. (WBAY) - A ceremony was held Thursday afternoon marking the 25th anniversary of the great train derailment in Weyauwega.

The fiery derailment of dozens of train cars, many carrying propane, prompted the mass evacuation of the community and started a massive fire that lasted 18 days.

The ceremony was held close to the tracks where the derailment happened on the morning of March 4, 1996 -- passing trains interrupted speakers twice -- as people remembered that frightening day in word and song.

Many of the people described what they saw and felt after hearing the explosion, seeing flames and having to evacuate with a moment’s notice. This included the former mayor and fire chief and the current fire chief.

At the time of the derailment, about 2,300 people were forced to leave. Many today feel lucky that the train carrying hazardous material didn’t didn’t cause more destruction than it did that day.

“It looked like someone had piled up toy train cars and and then set them on fire. It was very, very scary. Normally I’d get closer to the scene for better shots, but not this time. I said to Ron, ‘We’re getting out of here.’ As we crossed Mill Street we saw the first fire truck coming over the bridge, and I thought, ‘Man are they gonna have a battle on their hands,’” former mayor Judy Wiesman recalled.

At the time, residents left behind cash, medication, and even pets, not knowing where to go or when, they could return home.

It also put Weyauwega in the national spotlight, since the train was hauling hazardous material.

Former Weyauwega Fire Chief Jim Baehnman said, “Fourteen propane filled tanks at 33,000 gallons each, equal 469,000 gallons or propane, the largest single propane incident in American history.”

During the ceremony, a plaque was also presented, which will be on display at city hall as part of the remembrance.

The scenario is something more fire departments now train for.

“Believe me, I hope it never happens again here, but the big realistic question is not if, this will happen again, is is where and when,” said Chief Tom Cullen of the Weyauwega Area Fire Department.

Baehnman added, “When I look back at all of the things that could have gone wrong during this incident and didn’t, I am convinced the almighty was looking out for us.”

A documentary is also being made about the derailment featuring residents’ stories and news footage from the time. It’s expected to be released a year from now.

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