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Ace Guardsmen: Pet Rescuers

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 4, 1996 – A throng of Wisconsin National Guardsmen rushed to help residents of Weyauwega in early March after a freight train carrying propane gas derailed in the town.

But the citizen-soldiers stood by helpless as a propane leak shot flames more than 200 feet high, causing officials to evacuate people within a two-mile radius of the train wreck. Thirty-seven cars of an 81-car freight train derailed; 14 were filled with propane.

An estimated 1,700 people, including the entire population of Weyauwega, rushed from their homes leaving everything, said Army National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Donovan.

"The residents assumed they'd be back in their homes later that day or the next day, so they left everything behind -- clothes, pets, wallets. But it was nearly a month before all of them were allowed to return to their homes," he said.

Donovan said three times the number of guardsmen needed volunteered to help, but there wasn't much they could do at first. Railroad officials called in professional firefighters from Texas to fight the blazes, drain the tanks and burn the residual propane.

After several days, the city was still too dangerous for residents to return, Donovan said. Meanwhile, the weather turned colder. Residents grew anxious about their pets surviving in the frigid temperatures with no food, water or heat.

Officials didn't want residents to rescue their pets for fear that the still-dangerous propane tanks might explode and level most of the town, Donovan said.

They decided to use guardsmen and their military equipment to launch Operation Pet Rescue.

"We put the residents in flak jackets, Kevlar helmets and gave them earplugs in case there was an explosion," Donovan said. "We brought in six armored personnel carriers to transport the residents to their homes. Sorties into the city lasted about a half hour. It was a joint operation with a National Guard driver and a sheriff's deputy in the vehicle with the residents.

"We rescued about 200 animals -- dogs, cats, birds, snakes, a goat and an iguana," Donovan noted.

Guardsmen worked under extremely dangerous conditions. Authorities said a blast would have killed anyone within 800 feet and caused damage within a 1 1/2-mile radius.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePaul Brewer carries his pet rabbits to a waiting bus after riding a National Guard armored personnel carrier into Weyauwega, Wis. Brewer was one of many who retrieved pets with Guard help after a train accident involving derailed propane cars evacuated the town. Operation Pet Rescue began when the weather turned cold and the crisis clearly would not end soon -- some residents weren't permitted to return to their homes for nearly a month. Photo courtesy Steve Apps/The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA Wisconsin National Guardsman holds Carolyn Paul's dog, Subree, after the pet was rescued in Weyauwega. Residents evacuated after propane-filled railcars derailed in the town. Operation Pet Rescue began when the weather turned cold and the crisis clearly would not end soon -- some residents couldn't return to their homes for nearly a month. Photo courtesy Steve Apps/The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wisc.  
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