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Rail worker risks life in 1973

To save co-workers


by: MADRAS PIONEER ARCHIVES - Former Metolius resident Alfonso Villanueva was hailed as a hero in 1973.Forty years ago this month, former Metolius resident Alfonso Villanueva risked his life to prevent a potentially deadly rail car accident north of Madras.

In the process, Villanueva, 74, now of Toppenish, Wash., suffered a career-ending back injury, but saved five other rail workers, earning recognition for his heroism.

Irene Aimone, of Madras, one of Villanueva's five children, recalls the day her father was injured, but little else. "I just remember him being hurt," she said. "He was off work for quite awhile."

At the time, the 34-year-old Villanueva was working two jobs to support his young family — for Burlington Northern Railroad, and for Gourmet Foods in Metolius.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Alfonso VillanuevaContacted by telephone, Villanueva said that the railroad's headquarters was in Madras at that time. On that particular day, he started work at 7:30 a.m., and the crew all left for the Paxton area, about 12 miles north of town.

"They left me in the railroad depot, because the plumber was coming to do some work," said Villanueva, who was tasked with digging around the pipes.

Around noon, he looked outside the building and saw a group of people, including a couple police officers, a truck inspector and the general railroad master. "When I got out, I didn't know what was going on," he said.

Villanueva was told that the brakes on a propane tank railroad car had failed and the rail car had rolled away from the railroad siding in Metolius, and it was headed toward Madras.

"The general roadmaster asked if I was in good shape," said Villanueva, who was a Golden Glove boxer at the time with a 43-3 record. The roadmaster wanted him to try to jump onto the train as it passed by to try to stop it.

"I take my boots off, my coveralls, my helmet," he said.

As the train, traveling an estimated 35 mph, passed by, he jumped, grabbed the ladder on the train, and pulled himself up.

"He grabbed the ladder and lost his socks, because it dragged him," said Irene Villanueva, his wife of 53 years. "When he jumped on the car, it whiplashed him, tearing vertebrae in his back."

Alfonso Villanueva, who didn't know that he'd been injured, attempted to apply the brakes, but there were no brakes. He quickly jumped off onto the gravel beside the tracks.

A sheriff's detective, James Swanson, who had been following the train, picked him up. "I tell him, 'Let's go to Paxton,'" said Villanueva, who encouraged Swanson to drive as fast as he could toward the area where the men were working.

"The sheriff (detective) didn't want to go faster; he was already going 80," said Irene Villanueva. "Alfonso said their chances of making it alive were better than the folks in Paxton."

At Paxton, five men were cleaning ditches along the tracks. Wilbur Kent was operating a big crane on the tracks, and about two blocks further down the tracks, four others — Juan Romero, Tony Torres, Charlie Dunlap and Tony Medina — were working on the tracks with rail carts.

As they pulled up, Alfonso Villanueva could see that the tank had picked up tremendous speed and was barreling at the crane, still on the track. There was no time to do anything but yell for the crane operator to clear the track.

Then he closed his eyes. "I didn't see the man jump; I thought he was already dead," Villanueva recalled.

Fortunately, Kent turned and saw the tank coming and jumped at the last second. "He barely made it," said Villanueva, who was on the right side of the train. "He jumped on the left hill side. He was lucky."

The propane car struck the crane and derailed, turning on its side, but remaining intact. "Alfonso said that if the tank had exploded, he said that for a quarter of a mile, people would have died," said Irene Villanueva, who was shopping at Safeway around the time of the crash.

As she was shopping, she spotted her husband walking around "as white as a ghost, kind of in shock. He told me, 'You won't believe what happened.'"

Although Villanueva was checked out at Mountain View Hospital after the incident, Irene Villanueva, who had worked as a nurse's assistant at the hospital, said that the X-ray didn't show that he had a herniated disk.

"He was injured," she said. "After that, he lost control of his legs and he had to have surgery in his lower back. He had to have two operations."

by: MADRAS PIONEER ARCHIVES - On Jan. 14. 1974, Alfonso Villanueva and Detective James Swanson were awarded for their heroic action.On Jan. 14, 1974, Alfonso Villanueva and James Swanson were awarded $100 U.S. Savings Bonds for their heroic action, but Villanueva was not able to return to either of his jobs.

A couple months after the accident, Kent, who was close to retirement, came to visit and left $400 under a plate. "I said, 'Wilbur, I don't want your money. I'm OK,'" said Villanueva.

But Kent refused to take the money back, and it helped the family of seven survive.

Villanueva suggested that his wife apply for food stamps to tide the family over, but she said, "Never in my life do I get food stamps," so he applied and was told that they would have to sell one of their houses to qualify.

That very day, he received back pay of a little over $5,000, and the family struggled on, eventually hiring a lawyer to deal with the railroad.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Irene and Alfonso Villanueva, center, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on July 16, 2010, surrounded by their five children, Irene Aimone and David Villanueva (kneeling), at left, and Mike (kneeling), Mona and Alfonso Villanueva, at right.In 1977, Villanueva received a settlement of $150,000. "The railroad gave him a settlement and put him out — no insurance for the family or nothing," said Irene Villanueva. "It wasn't really fair what happened to him."

After his second, successful surgery, Villanueva, who had been working in construction, went to Toppenish, Wash., to find work. "We would see him once a month," said Irene Villanueva, who was home with the kids."

The family, except for Irene Aimone, later moved to Washington, where Villanueva continues to work in construction.

"He's 74 and still going strong," said his wife.

Irene Aimone agreed that her father is still very active, with 16 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.

"Everybody is proud of him," she said. "He saved his friends."



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