This story was originally published in The Report Newsmagazine:

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The Great Train Getaway

When John Ebeling's Truck Smashed Into the Side of Fast Moving Freight, That Was Only the Beginning of His Terrifying Ordeal

By Paul Bunner
Reprinted with permission of the author

The sun did not rise in central Alberta on December 21, the winter solstice and shortest day of the year, until nearly nine o'clock. So it was still very dark around 7:30 when John Ebeling and his three children all piled into his company pickup truck and headed off down the gravel road from their farm to the lonely intersection where they always meet the school bus. The roads had iced over badly the day before, and the 40-year- old oil well pump technician and his wife Nancy had speculated that school might be cancelled. If it was, he said, he would probably go to work later, or perhaps not at all. But school was on, so Mr. Ebeling delivered his kids to the bus and turned south, thinking it would take him a bit longer than usual on the slick roads to make the 12-mile trip to his National Oilwell Canada Ltd. office in Red Deer.

John Ebeling Just south of the Blindman River, his white 1998 Ford half-ton cleared the top of a slight rise. He was travelling about 40 miles per hour. His eye was drawn to a shadowy movement on the periphery of his vision to the east- a deer, maybe. Then he noticed a light in a house about 100 yards away, slightly to the west. When he refocused on the road immediately ahead, he was startled to see a fast-moving freight train suddenly lit by his headlights. He stepped on the brake and instantly felt the tires begin to glide on glare ice. Letting up on the brake, he tried to steer for the shoulder, hoping to find loose gravel and some traction. But he just kept gliding forward. The rail cars belonged to an empty 103- car, two-engine Canadian National Railway train headed west to pick up sulfur from Gulf Canada's sour gas plant in the foothills at Strachan. They loomed ever larger and louder as the truck drifted slowly toward the unlit crossing. "I was standing on the brakes, with both hands on the wheel," Mr. Ebeling recalls. "I was thinking: 'I don't need this. I don't need an accident. I never had one with any company vehicle'...The truck was slowing. I think it was almost stopped. Maybe five more feet and it would have stopped."

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But it didn't. Instead, there was a muffled crunch as the bumper and grill of the Ford punched into the side of a 10-foot-high car, just ahead of the back wheels. The air bag on the steering wheel blew up in Mr. Ebeling's face, obliterating his vision. When it deflated, he was horrified to discover that his truck had somehow become attached to the side of the train and was now being pulled along with it. The wind on his face came from a hole in the windshield. To his right was the twisted passenger door and beyond that darkness. To his left, only inches from his face, was the black metal hulk of the 52-foot-long railcar.

Mr. Ebeling's hands still clenched the steering wheel, and both feet were still welded to the brake pedal. But the truck was now being driven by the train, and was lurching and bumping as if crossing a cow pasture. The air was filled not only with the grinding and metal-on-metal squealing of the steel rail car wheels, but also with a steady shower of sparks thrown up from somewhere under the front of the truck. He let go of the wheel and reached for his cup holder, expecting to find his cell phone there. It was gone, so he unlatched his seatbelt and started feeling around in the darkness on the seat and the floor. The only thing he found was a large chunk of metal or plastic sitting in his lap.

"I sat up and looked through the hole in the windshield again," he recounts. It seemed like I was in the cab for about 10 minutes, but it must have been only seconds. I was thinking the truck might explode, hit a post-anything-and then I reached back and felt that the back window was gone." It occurred to Mr. Ebeling, for the first time, that he might be killed if the truck hit something along the side of the track. "So I climbed out the window. I looked up over the top of the cab. It was still dark. All I could see were the sparks. I thought about jumping, but we seemed to be going 30 or 40 miles an hour, and I couldn't see what I'd be jumping into." Looking back at the rail car, he spotted its outside ladder, right next to the back corner of the truck, illuminated by the plume of sparks. He stepped over to it and pulled himself up. The sparks and the frigid wind prompted him to reach for the back of the car where he found another ladder. He swung his six-foot, 205-pound frame around to it, climbed down to the draw bar that connected the coupling "knuckle" to the undercarriage of the rail car, and sat down.

"I'm sitting there on the [draw bar] facing backwards, looking over at the back of the truck and the flying sparks, figuring I'm fairly safe and thinking, 'I'm alive, thank God. I'm going to see my wife and kids again.' And I'm also thinking, 'they've got to notice this. Who's not going to notice a truck dangling off the side of a train?'"

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Nobody would, because the train and the truck travelled scarcely two miles, passing through only a couple of isolated level crossings, before they were violently parted. "I saw this white panel go flying by-probably the hood-and it seemed like seconds later the truck disconnected. Suddenly there were no more sparks, and it was pitch dark." No more than five minutes had passed between the time Mr. Ebeling's truck hit the train and when it fell off. The mangled pickup let go at the end of a long outside curve and rolled to a stop in a wide snow-covered ditch.

The truck was gone, and the train wasn't stopping. "They don't know I'm here," thought Mr. Ebeling. He climbed back to the top of the car, where something carried on the wind hit him in the eye and made him realize for the first time that he had lost his glasses. Climbing back down, he considered his situation. It seemed to him that he might well ride the westbound freight all the way to Vancouver, and freeze in the bargain. "I decided I had to figure out some way to get these people to stop," he recalls. The question was how. He had no railroad experience, but it seemed to him that the large wheel at the top of the ladder on the front of the other car might be related to the braking system. He stepped across the coupling, hauled himself up the ladder and cranked the wheel a couple of times. Nothing happened. Then he thought about trying to walk the length of the moving train, all the way to the engine. But the open-topped sulfur cars were empty and the sheer walls were eight-feet, four-inches high. They looked even deeper to Mr. Ebeling, and he feared that if he fell in, he would not get out. Moreover, it would have been a long trek to the front end. He had hit the train almost dead-centre, at car 50.

He tried the wheel again, working up blisters as he reefed in vain on the cold steel. He found a lever, pulled it, and a chain hanging from the wheel went slack. He didn't know it, but he had been trying to set the hand brake railroaders use when they are shunting cars around a yard. When that failed, he climbed back to the top of the front car. The lights of Sylvan Lake loomed ahead, so he perched himself on the rim of the car with one leg on the ladder and the other dangling in the box. He saw two automobiles near the tracks as the train passed through town. But even as he was waving frantically at them, he realized he was wearing a black coat and dark jeans, and was therefore all but invisible.

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As the lights of Sylvan Lake faded into the distance, Mr. Ebeling felt doomed. In desperation, he groped all around the coupling for some way of disconnecting the train. That was his only hope, he thought, of drawing attention to his plight. Hanging below the knuckle he noticed two rubber hoses, connected in the middle and each equipped with a small lever. He turned both levers. Nothing. He jumped up and down on the hose. Still nothing.

The miles passed. Light was creeping into the sky, allowing him to see more details of the coupling. He noticed a box directly underneath, and a metal bar leading to a large lever at the side of the car. "Lying across the top of the coupling, I reached out and pushed this lever real hard, and it worked-the coupling came apart. I got back up quickly as the two cars started to separate."

As he watched the back end of the train fade slowly into the distance, Mr. Ebeling thought he was saved. Someone would have to notice the disconnected cars, and he presumed that breaking the train probably sent some kind of signal to the crew in the engine. As it turned out, he had done the one and only thing he could have done to prevent the uncoupling from alerting the train crew. When he shut the angle cocks on the hoses, he prevented the pressurized air brake system from engaging, as is supposed to happen whenever two cars come apart.

When the train didn't stop, Mr. Ebeling was mystified. He had pushed, pulled and turned every thing he could find. Impulsively, he reached down again for the critical lever on the air hose. As soon as he wrenched it open he heard a whoosh of air as it bled out of the line, and then he felt the train lurch as the emergency brakes engaged. "'Thank God,' I thought, 'It's finally over.'" He was about a mile east of Eckville, and about 20 miles northwest by railroad track from where his encounter with the train had begun. Less than an hour had passed. He relaxed, sat down on the draw bar, and waited for the train to stop.

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But, incredibly, the train wasn't finished with him yet. He had also closed the angle cock on the air hose connected to the car behind the coupling, thereby disabling the emergency brakes on the disconnected cars. As the front end came to a stop, he looked up to see the back end barreling towards him. As the cars drew closer and closer, Mr. Ebeling recalls, "I'm thinking as I'm sitting on the coupling and watching the cars come towards me that I've seen this before-like in movie or something. And I'm thinking I don't want to be here." He jumped off, stumbled down and up the ditch next to the track and took off running across a field. He was about 50 feet away when the first car hit. He kept running, watching over his shoulder as 13 cars came off the track, the front ones piling three-high on top of each other. The deafening crashing, grinding and scraping sounds of the collision went on for about 10 seconds.

When it was over, he walked back toward the train and found a space between the cars that led him to the other side of the track. There he stepped carefully around high tension wires downed by a power pole felled by the wreck, and started walking toward the head end. Eventually he met up with the conductor, whom he greeted with, "I've hit your train." When he got to the engine and was introduced to the engineer, he said, "I don't have a ticket to ride this train."

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"I wasn't trying to make jokes," Mr. Ebeling says, sitting at his kitchen table a couple of weeks later reflecting on his terrifying episode and unbelievable good fortune. He's off work and nursing a swollen, sore ankle and some tender ribs, the only lingering physical evidence of his ordeal. By now he has also survived a frenzied media onslaught-there were some 250 phone calls to his home in the days immediately after the story broke and his neighbours started telling reporters searching for his place that they didn't know where he lived-and he wants to get the full story out, if only to protect himself from CN, which is hinting darkly that they may hold Mr. Ebeling responsible for the destruction of their property.

"I was in shock, I guess. I said those things as kind of a tension release. I was a volunteer fireman for 17 years and one time I pulled a body out of a car wreck-in two pieces. I made a joke that time too." Most people who heard about Mr. Ebeling's experience figured him for some kind of Hollywood action hero, but he insists he is simply an "ordinary man" thrust into extraordinary circumstances. By all appearances, the gentle, soft-spoken Ebeling is just that. The native of Olds, Alta., and his Nova Scotia -born wife Nancy feed a few cattle and grow most of their own vegetables on their quarter-section, and they hope that raising their two young teenaged sons and daughter in such circumstances will insulate them from some of the more noxious elements of mass urban culture. Mr. Ebeling says he's not a religious man, but he might easily be taken for one. He doesn't smoke, scarcely drinks and never uses profanity, except on rare occasions when his children or his two brawny, gregarious retrievers drive him to distraction. The other thing people have said about Mr. Ebeling is that he has more lives than a cat. One retired CN conductor from the Edmonton region reckons the unintentional train-hopper used up at least three lives, one when his truck hit the train, one when he escaped the truck moments before it ditched, and one when he evaded the collision between the front and back ends of the train. The conductor adds that it is miraculous Mr. Ebeling wasn't hurt when he was fumbling around with the coupling. A heavy spring in the draw bar takes some of the stress off the knuckles by allowing the bar three to four inches of travel. "I've seen two guys lose a foot in there," says Erwin Lischewski.

Mr. Ebeling used up another life in a skydiving incident when was 18. His parachute was supposed to open automatically as he exited the airplane at 3,000 feet. It wasn't until he was under 1,000 feet and reaching frantically for the emergency pullcord that the main chute finally opened. " It was four weeks before I could get up in the plane again," he recalls, " but when I got there I realized I couldn't jump any more." So could he ever ride the rails again? "I think so," he says, "but you know what? That was the first time I've ever been on a train."

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