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Pennsylvania man lived the drama that inspired 'Unstoppable'

At lunchtime on May 15, 2001, CSX Locomotive No. 8888 eased down tracks in a rail yard outside Toledo, Ohio. The engine known as "Crazy Eights" picked up speed as it pulled 47 freight cars, two of them loaded with toxic chemicals, south toward Columbus.

Jon Hosfeld recounts the 2001 hair-raising story where he chased a runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals.  It's the basis for the movie. "Unstoppable." (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Jon Hosfeld recounts the 2001 hair-raising story where he chased a runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals. It's the basis for the movie. "Unstoppable." (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

At lunchtime on May 15, 2001, CSX Locomotive No. 8888 eased down tracks in a rail yard outside Toledo, Ohio. The engine known as "Crazy Eights" picked up speed as it pulled 47 freight cars, two of them loaded with toxic chemicals, south toward Columbus.

Only no one was on board.

Jon Hosfeld, a native of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was in the rail yard eating his lunch.

He wasn't supposed to be there that day. Hosfeld, 52, ran a CSX yard 67 miles south in Kenton; he'd come north to deposit a carload of children and Ohio's lieutenant governor in Toledo for a program aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of rail crossings.

Over the radio from the tower came the foreman's voice: "I think we've got a problem."

It was a railroad worker's worst nightmare: a runaway train.

Hosfeld dropped his lunch. He and a coworker jumped into a silver Dodge Dakota pickup and took off.

If this scenario sounds familiar, maybe you've seen the trailers for Unstoppable, the thriller starring Denzel Washington that opens at theaters Friday. It's about an out-of-control train and the heroic effort to stop it before it caused widespread disaster.

That's Hosfeld's story.

Now he's 62, retired, and living in Marysville, Pa., near the rail yards where he and his father once worked.

"I've got to stop this train," he remembers thinking. "I've got to solve this problem."

A senior engineer that overcast spring day in the Stanley Yard, just south of Toledo, was moving cars around in the typical choreography of freight yards.

He was preparing to make a routine repair - to climb out of his slowly moving locomotive and fix a track switch. For reasons still unknown, he applied the throttle instead of a brake system.

Panicked, the engineer tried to jump back on the train. But he lost his footing on rain-slicked steps and was dragged 80 feet before he let go.

Meanwhile, Hosfeld, a veteran CSX trainmaster, saw what was going on. He says he remembers thinking: Let's see if we can catch it.

Off he went, he and his colleague Mike Smith, barreling down Interstate 75 in the silver Dodge Dakota, reaching speeds of almost 100 m.p.h. in a race to find the train. State police began clearing the rail crossings.

Hosfeld and Smith rushed to a crossing and peered down the tracks. No train. They didn't know if it was behind them or ahead.

They pressed on, finally catching sight of the train at a town called Cygnet. It was moving at speeds of more than 40 m.p.h.

"I could see the vapors," Hosfeld recalled this week in an interview. That telltale sign made his heart sink: "I knew the throttle was wide open."

His first thought was to derail the train.

Just north of the college town of Bowling Green, the railroad workers tried to do just that - they laid down a steel wedge designed to derail a locomotive in just such an emergency.

The Crazy Eights blew right through it at 50 miles per hour.

The train was sailing through dozens of grade crossings, moving too fast to trip the gates. It motored past factories, through cornfields and sugar-beet farms and the bog land known as the Great Black Swamps.

It was carrying 20 cars loaded with farm products, steel, and coal. Two cars contained molten phenol - a substance used in paint thinner. It is toxic and potentially flammable.

In the late 1960s, Hosfeld served a four-year stint in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam. Coming home to central Pennsylvania in 1970, he considered two career paths.

One was plumbing - they were looking for such tradesmen to help build the new nuclear plant that was going up at Three Mile Island. The other was his father's line - railroading.

His dad worked at the storied Enola yards, the heart of the Pennsylvania Railroad's freight operations, north of Harrisburg. Hosfeld spent hours there as a kid.

His father was often away for long stretches, but the boy remembered the kindness of the men hanging out in the crew office. They were like family. The railroad took care of you, he remembers.

He'd seen how his grandparents had struggled as farmers.

"I wanted a pension plan," Hosfeld recalls, sitting on the sofa of his home in Marysville, a few miles from the Enola yards. So he signed up for the railroad, rose through the ranks at Conrail from fireman to trainmaster, and was put in charge of various freight yards in Pennsylvania and Maryland before being sent to Ohio in 1996.

By the time Locomotive 8888 passed the Whirlpool plant north of Findlay, TV news helicopters were following overhead. All Hosfeld could do was stand by as the train blasted through another crossing.

Back in Toledo, supervisors began rolling out Plan B: Catch the train from behind.

The crew of a northbound train farther down the line was ordered to uncouple its locomotive and wait on a siding for the runaway.

About 2:05 p.m., the train passed Dunkirk - where Hosfeld briefly considered trying to run it off the rails into a quarry.

Now the chase train was in hot pursuit. Five miles south, near Blanchard, that crew caught up with the train. Moving at 51 m.p.h., they managed to attach the locomotive to the rear car.

The normal speed for safe car coupling is 4 m.p.h.

Now came the task of slowing the runaway. Engineer Jess Knowlton had to apply the brakes of his locomotive ever so gently, lest he break the train apart.

By the time the train reached Kenton, Knowlton and conductor Terry L. Forson had slowed it to about 11 m.p.h.

Yet they couldn't stop it. The 3,000-horsepower engine and the weight of 47 cars added up to "too much power," Hosfeld said.

But now it was entering Hosfeld's home turf - the train yard at Kenton. He had directed his crew to create a blockade, putting two locomotives on the same track as a last-ditch effort to halt the train.

He still thought he could stop it, though. He got out of the pickup truck at a crossing, minutes ahead of the train. "I heard it screaming," Hosfeld recalled.

What he had in mind was a perilous three-foot leap.

He'd jumped on moving trains in those Enola yards, but they moved at 2 or 3 m.p.h., not 11.

"I only had one chance," Hosfeld said. "I thought I had to focus. 'I've got to hit this.' "

He stretched his legs, said a prayer, and started running.

He ran sideways along the right-of-way as the engine approached. Just as its nose passed, he jumped - nailing his landing on the step, and hauling himself to the locomotive's deck.

He raced to the cab to shut down the throttle. It was 2:30 p.m., two hours after No. 8888 rolled out of Toledo on its own. The train had gone 66 miles.

He radioed: "It's over, fellas. I got it stopped. We're safe."

In the Hollywood version, the train is described as a missile "the size of the Chrysler building," barreling toward a major city, ramming horse trailers, train cars - everything except puppies, as one reviewer wrote. Denzel Washington plays a veteran engineer who leaps across train car roofs. Actor Chris Pine, as the conductor, dangles between moving cars.

In reality, thanks to Hosfeld and the other trainmen, no one was injured and the train was intact.

In 2009, 20th Century Fox hired Hosfeld as a consultant. He shared railroad lore and language with director Tony Scott on locations in Pittsburgh and Ohio.

When production was done, Hosfeld's real-life role ended up on the cutting-room floor, his character reduced to a composite.

Hosfeld, who retired in 2006, hasn't seen the film. He wasn't invited to the Hollywood premiere; he says that's OK with him.

A theater manager in his hometown of Mechanicsburg is saving 40 seats for Hosfeld, his wife, Judy, and other family and friends for the opening Friday night.

All Hosfeld says he's hoping for is to see his name in the credits.