Armored cars rumbled through the streets of this eerily silent town Friday, carrying flak-jacketed residents to their homes to rescue freezing, starving pets abandoned after a blazing train wreck.
People dashed into their homes to grab dogs and cats left in haste when the Wisconsin Central Ltd. train derailed Monday, igniting propane in 14 derailed cars. The wrecked cars continued to blaze for a fifth day Friday, raising fears of an explosion.
Peggy Blanchard rushed from an armored car to her door, where she was greeted by her 14-year-old poodle-terrier, Blackie. “When he came running up to me, I knew he was going to be OK,” she said.
A police officer leashed the dog, and Blanchard ran upstairs. There, she found her three cats and threw them in a box. A veterinarian stood by to provide immediate care.
Six armored vehicles were brought in for the National Guard rescue operation and the residents were issued the jackets and military helmets to protect them in case one of the propane tank cars exploded.
Experts said such an explosion could kill anyone within 800 feet and cause property damage 1-1/2 miles away. Homes within 1,000 feet of the wreck remained off-limits.
Authorities estimated hundreds of cats and dogs were left behind when the community of 1,700 was hastily evacuated Monday. The rescue was planned when experts told railroad officials the fire could burn for three weeks.
Natural gas to the central Wisconsin town was cut as a safety precaution. After a week of bitter cold and no heat, residents who have been staying with friends or in motels or shelters had expected to find dead or dying animals.
At midafternoon, buses were brought to Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Waupaca to ferry 112 anxious pet owners to a staging area southwest of the town. There, they put on protective gear and boarded the armored cars.
When the first bus returned to a park in Waupaca after the rescue mission, dogs barked and people cheered.
But a woman burst into tears when she saw a man walk off the bus with an empty pet carrier. The man said he found the couple’s cats unharmed, but they ran away when they saw the police.
Paul Paulson beamed after finding his cockatiel and parakeet still alive. “There’s fish dead in the fish tank but the water wasn’t frozen. I guess that old house kept warmer than I thought,” Paulson said.
As the National Guard prepared for the rescue mission, Susan Weiss sat in the nursery at the church, weeping.
Weiss, 51, was told she could not get her cat because she lives too close to the derailment. Weiss is disabled, and 10-year-old Kynda is her sole companion.
Weiss said she had left the cat food bag out for some reason, but there were only about two tablespoons of water in Kynda’s bowl.
“Hopefully, there is condensation on the window she can get to,” she said. “All you can do is hope and pray she’ll hang in there.”