‘Unstoppable’ — The Real Story

Posted on November 4, 2010 at 8:00 am

When it says “Inspired by true facts” at the beginning of a movie, we are warned that there may be little relationship between what we see on screen and what really happened. But in the case of next week’s “Unstoppable,” the runaway train movie starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, the real story is uncomfortably close to the heart-thumping adrenaline rush we see in the movie. While the characters and their situations and relationships are fictional, some of the most unbelievable moments in the movie are those that really did happen.
It happened in 2001, near Toledo, Ohio. (The movie is set in Pennsylvania.) A runaway SD-40-2 locomotive with 22 loaded and 25 empty cars amounting to a total of 2898 gross trailing tons ran for 66 miles carrying cargo that included molten phenol acid, a highly flammable and toxic substance. According to the official report on the CSX runaway train incident, as in the movie, the engineer got out of the cab to adjust a switch and was not able to get back on the train because it accelerated. And a very brave railroad engineer did jump on the moving train to go inside the cab and hit the brake. It was not going as fast as the movie-heroic rescue on screen, but it was plenty real-life-heroic for all who were involved.
Thankfully, in real life, no one was injured in the incident.

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The Real Story

29 Replies to “‘Unstoppable’ — The Real Story”

  1. “a very brave railroad engineer did jump on the moving train to go inside the cab and hit the brake. It was not going as fast as the movie-heroic rescue on screen”
    According to CNN, the train was only traveling 10 miles an hour when that happened, and not the 70 mph the film implied.

  2. Just saw “Unstoppable” and it was VERY edge of the seat entertainment.Thanks for the REAL info on the CSX runaway incident that inspired this movie and the link provided. Very interesting news story and I was relieved to read that there were NO fatalities. Still, a good movie!!

  3. My family and I watched “Unstoppable” on DVD at home. It was excellent, and the only PG-13 stuff in it was bad language. I read about the incident in Reader’s Digest several years after it happened, and I remember thinking “I’ll bet they will make a movie about this someday.” A lot of the movie was Hollywoodized, of course, but it was still good.

  4. In the movie, the engineer also steps down from the locomotive to change a track switch, and while he’s doing that, a control lever somehow moves by itself to apply full throttle power — one of many elements likely to irk railroad-savvy viewers, although only a few materially affect the story line.

    Movie dialogue soon brings up the “dead-man” feature, and a trainmaster played by Rosario Dawson explains that because the train’s air brakes are not connected, it wouldn’t work. That isn’t exactly true, as the dead-man feature should also activate the locomotives’ own brakes, but for simplicity’s sake one could assume the movie engineer also applied the locomotive brakes.

    Among the movie’s first attempts to stop the runaway is the dispatch of another train’s locomotives to pull out ahead of it, let it catch up, and then brake enough to allow a combat-veteran railroad employee dangling from a helicopter to drop aboard the unoccupied train.

    But a sudden jolt sends the veteran crashing through a windshield, ending that effort, and an aborted attempt to derail the runaway at this point succeeds only at sending the slow-down engines careening off the track and wrecking in a huge, unrealistic fireball.

    Although CSX may have considered sending engines out ahead of the real runaway as a last resort, this part of the movie is pure fiction.

    Had one or more locomotives coupled onto the real runaway’s front engine, or even just been pushed by it, anyone aboard the “rescue” engine could have just walked to the unoccupied ones and shut them down — no copters or fireballs required.

  5. The real-life chase crew caught up to the runaway several miles before it reached Kenton, coupled onto its rear car, and braked it enough to get through sharp curves in town without derailing. Then a CSX trainmaster, Jon Hosfeld, was able to run alongside at a road crossing just south of Kenton, pull himself aboard Engine 8888, and stop it.

    One way in which the movie and real life agree is the hazardous material carried in some of the runaway’s cars.

    Phenol, a chemical used in a wide variety of industrial processes, can cause skin, eye, or internal organ damage if touched or ingested, and is a toxic inhalation hazard if involved in a fire. While it does not readily ignite on its own, molten phenol easily ignites combustible materials, and burning phenol vapors may form explosive mixtures with air.

    While the threat of fire was real had the CSX runaway jumped the tracks in Kenton — or beyond — and its two carloads of phenol had ruptured, “Unstoppable” amps up the threat by quadrupling the phenol car-count and placing the sharp curve atop a trestle next to a tank farm in a big city.

    It also implies that a phenol incident would wipe out a large area, which is uncertain at best, although in a fire phenol could kill or severely injure bystanders.

    Perhaps the most incredible aspect of “Unstoppable” is the speed with which news media portrayed in the film gain very detailed information about the incident and those involved as it unfolds.

    For a railroad on the verge of a major disaster, the A&WV is amazingly cooperative about explaining its plans and providing employee names and photos to the media horde that chases the fictional runaway.

    Television did cover the CSX train’s “capture” live at the end of its journey, but it was months before an explanation of the incident’s origins was made public, and the engineer whose mistakes were blamed was never officially identified, nor were details of any disciplinary action taken against him ever revealed.

    Investigators recommended no sanctions against CSX for the incident after concluding it resulted from a combination of improbable events that could not have been foreseen.

  6. Just watched it last night with two 12 year old boys.

    We are old “Thomas the Tank Engine” fans we are well aware that “Accidents happen now and again, just when you least expect.”

    It kept their full attention. We discussed the movie today at breakfast. They certainly thought it was exciting. There are lots of themes in the movie that we could talk about – 1) The importance of following the rules and redundant systems, 2) The idea of competence and personal accountability and the value of knowing and understanding your work, 3) The ways in which the film is structured to bring subplots racing together to increase excitment mirroring how how the trains are racing together. 4) Consequences – they were both very struck by the epilogue where the original employee who make the mistake of taking too long in personal chat time, then running late, skipping the air brake link, and then jumping out of the train to try and change the switch (against his pal’s advice) and then was too out- of-shape to catch the train ended up working in fast food service.

    Cliched though this is, if this is the only lesson these boys get out of the movie, I am very happy.

    1. A great comment, mom with 2 boys! I love to hear about these family discussions – sounds like they got just the right lesson, as well as the heroism, dedication, and skill of the three main characters.

  7. To Ex-trainmaster: I doubt anyone would want to sit through Unstoppable with the train going 10 mph,etc. People watch movies to be thrilled. A documentary on the History Channel would be a great idea for your real-life factoid.

    1. Hello, Grannie! Yes, as I’ve said, the ramping up of the real story made the movie more exciting, but it also inspired audiences to want to know what really happened.

  8. Just watched the DVD of this movie last evening. The “Inspired By True Events” at the beginning of the film made me want to research it some more. I totally understand the difference between Hollywood and real-life. The movie was entertaining, and as Mom w/2 boys stated, provided an excellent opportunity to dialogue with my children. YouTube has many videos posted of the real, live action and footage from news stories of the event.

  9. This movie was intense. The added levels of suspense and on going action really make this movie quite difficult to stop watching. All in all its another notch to add in Denzel’s belt.

    Of course Hollywood adds their own intuitive spark to any real life story that’s handed in front of them. If you haven’t figured that out by now then I suggest you don’t even pay attention to the words “based in part on a true story”.

    Nevertheless the real story is truly inspiring and the movie is truly exciting.


  11. I just watched this movie again. Really good. At the end it gig be Alittle follow up bio on b each character. I missed it and was wondering what they said.

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