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First responders recall deadly train derailment in Mendon

'You just have to be calm in the chaos'
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Posted at 12:45 PM, Jun 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-26 13:45:10-04

MENDON, Mo. — Dr. Joshua Stilley used his cell phone more on June 27, 2022, than he ever has before.

On that day, an Amtrak train derailed near Mendon, Missouri, after crashing into a dump truck. Four people died, including the truck driver, and roughly 275 people were aboard the train.

“It was the highest number of phone minutes and most text messages I have ever used,” the doctor said after reviewing his monthly statement.

Jeff Alton’s phone hit its limit the same day.

“I remember my cellphone battery died about halfway through the day,” Alton recalled.

Alton is a regional coordinator for Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency. Stilley is an emergency medicine physician at MU Health Care in Columbia, Missouri, who oversees ambulance services in several rural counties — including Chariton County, where the train derailed — as an EMS medical director.

Both men responded to the scene of the crossing last summer.

“You could see the train from the road and what you were dealing with. You had all the cars on the side,” Alton said of first arriving on the scene.

As Region B coordinator for SEMA, it was Alton’s job to provide local first responders with additional resources from agencies across the 16-county region. About 70 different agencies responded to the scene ranging from ambulance districts and fire departments to school districts and law enforcement agencies.

Despite Mendon being a rural area, where services are far away, volunteers and church groups stepped up to help immediately after the derailment.

“It truly was a neighbor helping neighbor and seeing the response from everybody as they stood up and helped in this disaster,” Alton said.

Stilley focused primarily on helping the injured by personally treating people at the gymnasium where first responders relocated train passengers. He also worked with MU Health Care and other hospital associations to surge staffing to rural clinics to better serve injured passengers.

“There is a lot of complexity when you have an incident such as this,” Stilley said.

The doctor credited first responders and volunteers for saving lives.

“Each person took a personal responsibility to try to do the best that they could,” Stilley said. “We saw individuals going above and beyond, or making decisions and empowering themselves to do things that help out in the scenario.”

Alton also gave credit to prior training paying off during the derailment response. He’d worked several floods and tornadoes, but this was his first passenger train derailment.

He hopes there’s never another derailment but knows the emergency responders in the region will be ready for whatever comes next.

“You just have to be calm in the chaos is the main thing,” Alton said. “As a first responder, that’s a lot of what they do.”