It was -35- years ago Saturday when the small community of Waterloo, Nebraska was hit by tragedy. But the memory of losing three first responders is will very much alive.
On the night of July 12th -- 1979 -- a rescue squad was cut in half by a train engine. The crash killed three volunteer firemen on board but two others survived. One of them returned to the scene with our Mike McKnight.
Bryon Ueckert is still a volunteer firefighter 35 years after walking away from the crash with only cuts and bruises.Bryon says, " There must be some reason, some reason I survived. I think it’s too helping the communities."
He says the tragedy likely saved lives in the years since with installation of crossing arms. In 1979 only dings and lights warned of the approaching engine.Bryon says, " We had lights on and there were big lights on the train too so probably just didn't bother seeing them."
The fourth man to arrive at the fire station for a rescue call, Bryon took a seat in the back of the squad. The front smashed by the train engine. Bryon says, " If I had been seconds earlier I’d been either in driver’s side or the captain’s seat."
In a night of what ifs there was another. As rescuers tried to pull victims from the wreckage another train was approaching from that direction. Rescuers had to scramble to the rescue.
Bryon says, " They dropped that door down on one of their backs trying to get us out and get out of the way of the next one."
That train stopped just before the crash scene. A close call that followed a fatal collision. A reminder that the line of duty can be razor thin. Waterloo fire chief Travis Harlow says, " This is something we should think about all the time because it could potentially happen to everyone of us every day."
Bryon says the memorial for the three who died always affects him.
"It makes me want to think why I didn't die, why I survived. That's where I’d been sitting."
Byron Ueckert who is now the asst. chief in Valley says he won't stop risking his life spared 35 years ago to save others today.
Another firefighter in the back of the rescue squad named ken sanders also survived.
The five volunteers were responding to a report of a car in a ditch that turned out to be a false alarm.