Memories of the toxic fog that permeated the Minot area in the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 2002, are ingrained deeply for many people. For some living near the derailment site, the choking vapor triggered a fight or flight response an instinct that proved to be deadly when John Grabinger drove his truck into a house because he couldn't see. Grabinger's wife made it inside that house, but Grabinger died in the driveway.
Steve Kukowski escaped the cloud that night with his life, but suffered irreversible, permanent damage to one eye. Kukowski, a captain with the Minot Police Department, lived a few hundred yards from the site of the derailment. He spoke with The Minot Daily News about the horrible memories of that night.
"I heard the crash, but didn't know what I had heard," Kukowski said Monday. "I got up and walked through the house, and all of a sudden there was a 'whoosh' sound. I thought, 'Wow, it's really windy out.' Obviously, it must have been the tanks releasing.
Dave Caldwell/MDN •
Capt. Steve Kukowski of the Minot Police Department stands beside a patrol vehicle Friday. On another snowy January day seven years ago, Kukowski and his family fled a deadly cloud of anhydrous ammonia released by the derailment of a CP Rail train west of Minot.
"I went to look out the window, and it was like they were frosted over, (because the anhydrous cloud) was so thick. I couldn't see out, so I opened up my garage door to look outside. When I opened up my door, it just came rolling in.
"A white cloud rolled in, and it just took your breath away."
Kukowski said the phone system was not working at that time, so he had to search for his cell phone to call the police station to report the derailment. Not knowing yet what they were up against, Kukowski and his family got in a vehicle and fled the scene.
Getting out of 'a coffin'
"They (the police station) said, 'If you can get out, get out,'" he said. "Sometime later, we heard the term 'shelter in place.' Had I ever heard that term before that time, I certainly would have done that."
Kukowski said that while the harrowing events were unfolding, no one really knew what the effects of the exposure would be.
"At that time, if you could've asked anybody what they knew about anhydrous ammonia, they would have told you that farmers use it and that it's really dangerous to be around," he said.
"Initially, I thought it was going to be a coffin.
"As soon as I backed out of the garage, I couldn't even see my garage. I contemplated staying, but was still thinking that pretty soon it would just engulf the house and we wouldn't be able to breathe."
Kukowski said he immediately thought to head for the U.S. Highway 83 Bypass.
"I thought if I got to higher ground, it would be better."
The going was slow because it was impossible to see through the vapor cloud.
"I crept along the street, looking down to the shoulder," he said. "I was just barely going, and I had said to myself, 'I don't care if I hit a car or what I hit. I'm just not going to hit it hard enough I can back up and go around it."
Fortunately, Kukowski had jogged that same street hundreds of times and was very familiar with the landscape features.
"I knew every house, every driveway. I was counting them as I was going. When I got by the second cul-de-sac, I was up on the snow ridge a little bit. I pulled back onto the street, and I could see the tire tracks on the street."
Kukowski said it took about 20 minutes to travel about four blocks, but he never ran into anything.
But with each passing minute, the exposure to the gas took more of a toll.
"With every breath you took, it just took your breath away. I remember I had a towel with me, and my eyes were just burning and watering."
Kukowski said he reached a point where he realized that if he kept both his eyes open, "I'm going to blister both of them."
"So I closed one eye and thought, 'If this one gets so bad, I'll open the other one.'
"My family had towels, they had their hoods up on their parkas and their heads down in their laps with their towels. They were all coughing."
Kukowski is a proud, strong man. A 35-plus-year veteran of law enforcement, there isn't much he hasn't seen homicide and suicide scenes, and horrific traffic accidents among them. But the emotion of that night, even seven years later, still washes over him once he feels the vividness of that cold, dark, choking hell he found himself trying to get his family through.
"It's surprising what you can do when your 9-year-old son is in the back seat crying that he doesn't want to die," he said, trying valiantly but failing understandably to choke back tears.
Red lights ahead
"We drove up onto the bypass, and the higher you got, the clearer it got," Kukowski said. "All of the sudden, at the top you could see all kinds of red lights and firemen.
"We got to the top and the firemen and the rescue workers were talking about just how shocked they were that somebody made it out of there. And then another car drove up behind us."
Kukowski said they tried to get to Trinity Hospital to seek medical attention, but were unable to do so because of the presence of the cloud, which was drifting into downtown Minot.
"We couldn't make it. We ended up going all the way around the back road to Burlington. We ended up at the church there where they had set up triage. By then, my eyes had swollen shut. I couldn't see anymore. They took me from there to Trinity by ambulance."
Kukowski was asked what went through his mind as he looked down from the bypass on the cloud from which he had escaped.
"It was shocking. When you looked over it, it was like a huge, heavy mist that just hung over the city, and it was very dense.
"The firemen and I commented that the death toll was going to be astronomical, from people being trapped, and how devastating it was going to be.
"We just wanted to get away from it as quickly as we could, and so we left. I don't know what happened at that intersection after that, but I know the deputy got trapped behind. As a matter of fact, he was almost directly behind my house, stuck in the ditch."
Deputy Scott Erb was trapped inside his vehicle for about 45 minutes and suffered injuries that would affect his career, even to this day.
The memories don't fade
The emotional toll on the victims who narrowly averted possible death and even more severe injury is still felt today. Kukowski said that the roller coaster of emotion started immediately.
"A little bit of everything," he said when asked what emotions he felt then and still feels today. "I mean, you run the emotional gamut, so to speak.
"I wish I would have known more about anhydrous, but if you had a chemical spill of chloride this evening, what would we know about it now, if anything? Tomorrow, we'd know a lot. We'd be just flooded by the news reports as to what should be done, and how we should do it.
"And that's why we (police) train. That's why we prepare for disasters and floods and those types of things, so that you try to minimize the damage and injury to people as much as possible.
"Initially, I was very frustrated. Upset with the fact that for days, I had no vision at all. Slowly, it started to come back. And then (frustrated by) the doctoring for a long time. I had some surgeries to try and restore it, but that didn't work.
"So it went from angry to start with to extremely frustrated from having to go through the surgeries, and the railroad was extremely slow to respond. Everything was out-of-pocket.
"Even to go all the way to the end, with the railroad, it's a complete travesty. I don't feel that we were ever treated fairly."
'Eyes aren't worth anything'
At the time of the initial interview Monday, Kukowski declined to discuss whether he had settled his lawsuit against the railroad. By Tuesday morning, he had reconsidered for one main reason.
"I built this house in the country," he said of the new house he completed in 2007. "People think CP Rail bought my house."
"Did I settle with CP Rail? Yes, I did," Kukowski said. "I did not get enough to cover my expenses."
Kukowski said the cost of medical care and many other factors, such as utilization of sick leave, added up to considerably more than the settlement he received.
Compounding that bitterness a word he openly admitted he feels is the fact that people have told him they weren't even injured in the incident and still managed to get enough money to buy homes and retire early.
"I remember the attorney from CP Rail told me, 'Eyes aren't worth anything. Lungs are where the money is,'" he said. "Maybe some people did get some money from them I don't know. But I didn't get enough to cover my expenses.
"I don't want people to get the impression that, 'Yeah, you went through it, but you were well compensated,'" he said. "That's not the case."
Anger and frustration aside, Kukowski said he bears no ill will toward the two men operating the train that night. In fact, he expresses admiration for their actions.
"Knowing now that they say it was a bad section of track that caused the derailment, I have a lot of compassion for those people on the train," he said. "To get out in that, and have the presence of mind to unhook that to be able to do it and get to an area of safety. I know how bad it was to be in it, and I don't know how they survived it. To be at Ground Zero and walk away, I just can't believe it."
The fog has lifted
The effects on his vision are permanent. Kukowski was, and still is, a competitive shooter, a discipline that obviously requires excellent vision. It was that very fact that spurred Kukowski to only use one eye as he drove out of the fog that night.
"As I was driving out, I favored my dominant eye for that reason," he said. "I said, 'If I'm going to ruin one, I'm going to ruin not my good eye.' And I closed it.
"And that is the eye that I see almost everything out of today. Everything else, I have double vision. I see two images of everything out of my left eye.
"I'm glad I have one good eye anyway. And it's still frustrating. Even to watch the news, anything in print that comes across, I have to be very focused on it to see it because it is blurred.
"It still frustrates me all of the time."
The accident occurred seven years ago. Many people are still suffering from the effects of the anhydrous fog, and Kukowski believes that is a trend that might not ever be broken.
"I think in 10 to 15 years, we're going to see all kinds of lung problems and shortness of breath. And how long we did shorten our lives by breathing that in through hardening the lungs and destroying tissue and scarring?
"We may find out that there's going to be a lot of cases of shortness of breath in the future. We'll have to wait and see what happens."