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Family looks back on 2002 Minot derailment

MINOT, N.D. -- Minot will always hold a special place in the hearts of Richard Allende and his family. It also will be burned into their nightmares.

rail cars
Destroyed rail cars and debris wait to be removed after 31 cars of a 112-car Canadian Pacific Railways train went off the tracks Jan. 21, 2002.

MINOT, N.D. -- Minot will always hold a special place in the hearts of Richard Allende and his family. It also will be burned into their nightmares.

On Jan. 18, 2002, Allende and his family lived in a house in the 800 block of First Avenue Southwest, a quiet semicircle nestled a few blocks from Lincoln Elementary to the east and Oak Park to the west.

Unbeknownst to them at first, a CP Railway train derailed just west of Minot, unleashing a choking cloud of anhydrous ammonia that meandered along the low points in the Souris River Valley on a cold, windless night.

The Allendes' house is in a low-lying section of the city, at an elevation of about 1,551.75 feet above sea level -- not much higher than the nearby riverbank. Its physical location would come to play a crucial factor in the way the events of that night unfolded.

Richard Allende said they were awoken that night by the sound of their phone ringing. But they did not realize the sound was actually their phone, as he said it sounded "like it was underwater."

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As it turns out, that phone call, from his wife Melissa Allende's father, likely saved their lives.

But those lives have been changed by horrifying memories that refuse to fade.

"That night will always be like it was last night to Missy and me," Allende said. "It was the most terrifying event in our lives. We thought we were going to die."

Richard and Melissa Allende were two of the four parties involved in a publicly tried lawsuit against the railroad that took place in 2006, in federal court in Minneapolis.

As most litigants reached settlements with the railroad and have declined to disclose any details, that public trial remains one of the few windows through which to garner a look at some of the details of that night.

The trial determined that Melissa and Richard Allende suffered physical, emotional and psychological injuries. The court found the railroad at fault in the incident.

In February 2006, the couple was awarded a total of about $610,000. Two other litigants who sued the railroad during that same trial were awarded a total of about $1.2 million.

Post-trial events in the case appear to have muddied the waters, as firm documentation of exactly how much money ever changed hands and for what exact purposes is hard to nail down. But the public nature of that particular trial provided a rare insight into how events between the railroad and public were playing out at that time.

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Meanwhile, Richard Allende says, some people think the lawsuit was all about making his family a quick buck.

"The stress still lingers on because of health issues and dealing with idiots who think that we sued the railroad for the money," Allende said. "That money we received will never cover the medical bills we have compiled over the years, and will continue to compile."

He described the family's current health situation as "no good and getting worse," and at least one of the children is now developing intestinal problems he blames on the accident.

It began with that ringing phone.

"It must have rang forever because Melissa's dad kind of chewed us out for not answering," Richard Allende said.

"I remember that I felt extremely groggy and out of focus, and confused," he continued. "Once aware of what was going on I noticed it was difficult to breathe and that the air was white. I quickly gathered the kids and turned on the radio to see what we should do. We were all panicking as we couldn't breathe, and we were seriously contemplating going out into the cloud to get away. But as I walked downstairs to the main level, I could see the ammonia seeping in through the windows. It looked like something straight out of a horror flick."

The situation outside the window looked far worse.

"You could not see anything at all. I was only able to be downstairs for a minute (because of) the smell. The burn was horrible," he said.

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Richard Allende said he ran back upstairs, where Melissa Allende informed him that the news had said to huddle in the bathroom and turn on the shower.

Since authorities at the time were still grappling with the scope and content of the poisonous gas, they were unable to provide concrete information on which to base their advisories to the public.

"We found out later on (running the shower) was the wrong thing to do because water attracts ammonia," Richard Allende said.

He quickly added, however, that he feels the advisory to shelter in place was "the right thing."

Richard Allende is a military veteran, an avid hunter and a fisherman who enjoys participating in several competitive sports. Those who know him would hardly describe "Chet," as he is commonly called, as a weakling or a coward. But he said that experience shook him to his core.

Huddled in the bathroom with his wife and three children, then ages 9, 5 and 2, Allende found himself in the horrifying position of not being able to protect his children from harm.

"I remember our kids looking at me and wondering why their dad couldn't do anything to help them feel better or get them to a better place - a feeling no man should ever experience in their lifetime," he said.

At one point in what seemed like an eternity at the time, he and Melissa came to fear the worst.

"Melissa and I looked at each other and gave the look like, 'This is it,'" Richard Allende said. "We embraced as if we were going to die that night -- another thing no one should ever have to go through in their lifetime."

Eventually, Richard Allende said, he deemed it clear enough outside to get in the car and drive the family to his father-in-law's house. Once there, he said, his entire family began to experience flulike symptoms, which lingered for "a good month" afterward.

"We continued to be ill for a good year after that," Richard Allende said. "And our health has never been the same. Basically, every doctor we saw said the same things. One, no one will ever know the long-term effects (of the exposure), and two, it probably cut our life spans by a significant amount."

Some 9 1/2 years after that night, the Allendes have been affected by yet more tragedy, as they find themselves among the multitude whose homes have been heavily damaged by last year's Souris River flood. Sparked by a trip to visit friends in the southern states, the Allendes decided enough was enough. They purchased a new home in a southwestern state and are making preparations to sell their now-gutted house in Minot.

"We felt like we needed to start anew because it seems like Minot has brought us nothing but tragedy," Richard Allende said.

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