Railroad says switch failure caused derailment in Southeast Alaska

Megan Edge
Twenty-three people suffered minor injuries when two White Pass & Yukon Route locomotives and four passenger cars went off the tracks on top of a mountain near the Canada-Alaska border on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Bob Kratz

Bob Kratz and his family were in Southeast Alaska last week as part of a cruise on the Norwegian Pearl, a trip they took to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday, his mother's upcoming 75th birthday and his sister and brother-in-law's 25-year anniversary.

He said they were looking for an adventure. They got one when the train they were riding derailed between the Alaska community of Skagway and the Canadian border.

When their ship docked in Skagway on July 23, they planned to take the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railroad across the Alaska-Canada border and into Fraser in British Columbia. When they arrived, Kratz said, the family was supposed to go on an "adventurous kayaking excursion."  

They never made it.

Kratz and his family were just a few of the 360 passengers aboard the train when it derailed at Mile 20 that afternoon. But Kratz and his brother-in-law were the only two people actually ejected off the train. Kratz was among 23 people who reportedly had to be treated at the clinic in Skagway after the train returned to the community.

Neither he nor his brother-in-law sustained serious injuries, but both of them were "very shook up," Kratz said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, White Pass & Yukon Route President John Finlayson said it was a "single component failure in the switch" that caused the train to derail. He added that although he heard a "couple of people" went into the water, he "could never confirm it" and didn't know the details as to how it happened.

By Kratz's account, the derailment could have been much worse. He said that in the moments leading up to the derailment he had been outside on a platform with his wife Lisa and brother-in-law Peter Stevenson. He said time went by fast; one second he was videotaping his Alaska adventure and the next he was in the water.

"The minute the train went into the lake, I stayed underwater and swam 6 or 7 feet away in case the car was still rolling," Kratz said by phone from his Pennsylvania home.

The 49-year-old tourist and train enthusiast said his wife had managed to hang on. He said she was frantic, screaming; her legs were "like wet noodles," and a week later, she still has a "hell of a bruise on her right thigh."

"It could have been a hell of a lot more serious than it was," said Kratz, who expressed frustration with the rail company's attitude toward the derailment. "From my eyes, it was serious. In one minute we were just going along and then the next I was swimming with the fishes."

Kratz said the water was cold; not terrible if you expect it, but "quite shocking" if you don't, he said.

"I was waiting for the director to call 'cut,'" said Kratz.

According to Finlayson, the company did take the incident seriously and added they were "thrilled no one was seriously hurt."

Some passengers received some sort of compensation, but Finlayson declined to comment on specifics.

Kratz said none of his family was seriously injured, but when he arrived at the clinic health officials asked him to take off his clothing -- which Kratz said had been covered in kerosene when the train derailed -- and he then dressed in donated scrubs, which he wore back to the cruise ship.

And despite the problems, he said he would still take the historic train again, though he wasn't sure if he'd be able to convince the rest of his family.

"It's like if you got into a car accident," said Kratz. "It doesn't mean you wouldn't drive again."