MENDON, Mo. — One year ago, a small Missouri town made up of less than 300 people was thrust into the national spotlight.
An Amtrak train headed from Los Angles to Chicago hit a dump truck at an uncontrolled railroad crossing in Mendon, Missouri.
“The entire incident is still there in my mind like a bad dream,” passenger Rob Nightingale said in a statement to FOX4.
The temporary tracks that were put up 365 days ago when that Amtrak train derailed still block the Porche Prairie Crossing today, a concern for many of the people who live in the area.
But it’s the four lives lost — 56-year-old Kim Holsapple and 57-year-old Rochelle Cook of De Soto, 82-year-old Binh Phan of Kansas City, and 54-year-old Bill Barton II of Brookfield — plus the more than 150 people injured that remain top of mind.
Answering the call
“At first I didn’t know it was Amtrak. It was just dispatched as a train derailment,” Chariton County Sheriff’s Dep. Marshall Meagher said.
Meagher was one of the initial first responders to arrive. What he saw next is something engrained in his mind forever.
“We started hearing people hollering for help. There were people trapped in the cars; there were people injured,” Meagher said.
“There were people coming out of the train, so we were trying to get everybody in the right spot to help as fast and as efficient as we could,” Chariton County Sheriff Eric Billups said.
FOX4 talked with Katie Smith a year ago. The Mendon resident rushed rushed to the scene within 15 minutes simply to help.
“There were people on stretchers. There were helicopters landing, ambulances,” Smith said.
In the middle of nowhere — in a town with fewer residents than the number of passengers on that Amtrak train — Mendon answered the call.
“Dispatch called and said there was a train derailment, that there were injured passengers, that they would like to use the school for a triage center, and they would like to use our busses to transport non-critically wounded,” said Eric Hoyt, superintendent of Northwestern R-1 School District.
Without hesitation, Hoyt and his district did what needed to be done.
“We all have to rely on each other whenever any kind of disaster happens,” he said. “And that’s what they did. Everybody that day in this immediate area literally dropped whatever they were doing that day and came here to offer assistance.”
Four people died that day, and more than 150 were injured.
One question that lingers for many is did those people have to die — or could this have all been prevented.
“Well, that’s the sad part – yes, yeah,” farmer Mike Spencer said about if the tragedy could have been prevented.
Spencer farms nearly 800 acres of land surrounding the railroad crossing.
“I’m frustrated that I tried to prevent an accident from happening here, knowing that if an accident happened here, we would probably lose our crossing,” Spencer said.
And he was right. The crossing is still closed to this day.
In April 2021, a full year before this tragedy, Spencer met with the county, engineers and stakeholders, trying to address the problem: a steep incline leading up to the crossing.
In video shot by FOX4, you can see the line of sight is clearly blocked at the crossing. Not to mention Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is shorter than a normal freight train. And because of its color, it blends in with the horizon.
“If you look at the horizon, it’s the same color as an Amtrak train. It’s camouflaged,” Spencer said.
With the crossing closed now, farmers must drive 6-and-a-half miles around just to do their job.
They fear if there’s an emergency that an already slow response time due to their location could be even longer.
“If someone were in there and have a medical emergency, and there is a train blocking the crossing on New Haul Road, then how do you get medical emergency equipment to that induvial?” Spencer asked.
FOX4 reached out to the Missouri Department of Transportation for an interview, but the agency declined because the governor hasn’t signed the budget with new funding for railroad improvements yet. The bill is sitting on his desk.
We also reached out to the Chariton County commissioner who Spencer initially went to about his concerns. The commissioner declined our request for comment.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed since the train derailment. The litigation between victims, families of victims, Amtrak, railroad company BNSF and more is ongoing.
A possible trial could still be years away.
And one year later, there still remains more questions than there are answers.
But as he reflected, Meagher said the help from the people of Mendon on that day reminds him there’s good in the world.
That couldn’t better describe the people of Mendon, who stepped up and shouldered a load heavier than they were — yet they managed to do it.
“There were a lot of people who needed help,” Hoyt said. “And I think our small community responded to that call and they did everything that they could – with no training, no preparation, no drills.”