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Working Class Heroes Capture Ohio's "Unstoppable" Runaway Train

Ms. Inglish has been a professional writer and critic of films, books, music and theater for over 20 years.


Infamous Ohio Disasters

Just a few months before the 9/11 National Disaster, a runaway train in Northwestern Ohio created a day of havoc and fear throughout the state. People were glued to their television sets and radios, fearing the train full of hazardous materials would crash through their communities.

The Crazy Eights - Actual train in "Unstoppable." The number of the locomotive was changed for the movie.

The Crazy Eights - Actual train in "Unstoppable." The number of the locomotive was changed for the movie.

Crazy Eights Train of Ohio

Engine number 8888 in the stable of CSX Railroad products was sitting in Walbridge in Northwestern Ohio. A long-time engineer in a single-man crew got out of the cab of 8888 - The Crazy Eights - and the train ran away on its own, the brake not set properly.

The train carried a freight haul of hazardous materials in May 2001, just four months prior to the 9/11 disaster in the World Trade Center in New York City that stopped with whole world. Back in May, though, we thought Ohio was going to blow up!

Crazy Eights traveled on its own at up to 47 mph for almost 2 hours from near Toledo to 55 miles northwest of Columbus, not far from Kenton. It carried a chemically hazardous load in two cars. It was stopped by the efforts of three train men and that story became Unstoppable, the movie.

The Crazy Eights Incident

The case of the runaway train in the state that is home to several US Presidents and NASA astronauts became known as the Crazy Eights Incident. In fact, 8888 derailed in 2005 to provide a second Incident.Some folks felt it was crazy to ever run that locomotive again.

Engineer Jesse Knowlton, who lives a few miles from me, and Conductor Terry Forson stopped Crazy Eights in in 2001 and acted as consultants on the film Unstoppable (2010), also contributing some dialogue.

A handful of local Ohio newspaper and online film critics have downplayed the film and turned up their noses at it, undeservedly so. These critics are lucky that the Crazy Eights didn't blow up their city before 9/11 blew up our whole world. There is more action in the film than one would expect, even from a train disaster, and no special effects.

There is some exaggeration to portray the potential for wide ranging devastation that could have occurred in this incident, but since the real-life heroes of the story are OK with it, what's the problem for a handful of critics? Some critics feel its too unreal and boring -- Were they asleep at the switch?


Film Review: Quality of "Unstoppable"

We can remember the adage that when people are bored, it is sometimes because they are boring. We also can consider that addicts and abuse victims sometimes do not hanker for real-life events and healthy people, because those are not exciting enough. One-third more action not exciting enough?

I'm not calling out these critics on mental issues, but I must say that there is plenty of excitement in Unstoppable and more than in the actual event. For an action-adventure drama, historical fiction, and escapism, it is very good. Moreover, the film was produced without any CGI. All the sparks, fires, and collisions are real. The sound is real and the train more frightening than any tornado likened to the roar of a runaway freight train. See the film and you'll see how powerful Superman really was in stopping one.

However -- No sex scenes/strippers and the Hooters Girls are dressed more conservatively than at the actual restaurants. No slashed bodies dripping intestines onto the tracks over pools of blood running onto the parallel highway.

No bodies with 4th degree burns:carbonized - watch the old Signal 30 for that. PG-13 wouldn't like all this sex and carnage.

But there were crashes and fires and destruction - and injuries. The film could have been made at the R level, but the real events were not R-rated except for the language and potential danger, so a lot for kids that need to see the film would not be able to do so, until it was released on DVD. Kids are going to love this adventure. They may even want to work for the railroads afterward.


Director: Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Scott); Fox Films; 98 minutes

At least 50 talking roles in the film went to local residents. You'll also see someone from Detroit 187. One tense scene is actually at the elevated railroad track and bridge of the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway at Bellaire OH. I have seen that track a couple of times. It looks dangerous, and it is.

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In training, they give you an 'F.' Out here in the real world, you get killed.

— Frank Barnes from "Unstoppable"

Rail Signal.

Rail Signal.

Video Credit: KC8WJG's channel - YouTube

"Out here in the real world, you get killed."

All historical films are historical fiction somewhere along a continuum of degree, unless the dialogues are taken 100% from written and audio records. None of us were at these settings (as Light of Other Days allows us to be) -- We cannot get it all right, and sometimes the filming and the physics (Ye canna change the laws o' phsyics, Jim...) won't let us.

By the way, Chris Pine (Star Trek®'s newest Jim) co-stars as Conductor Will Colson to Denzel Washington's Engineer Frank Barnes. In the film, Will is a rookie, in real life, Terry had 14 months of experience (but not with runaway trains). This is an all-new Training Day type of experience for Washington as well as the new man.

The setting was moved to Pittsburgh with its longer railtroading history and its fantastic rail line curves - more and higher elevated curving tracks than Ohio (we barely have trains, anymore, but we do have some curves). Not until I saw this film did I realize the economic costs of operating a railroad and this one portrayed freight only, except for a short excursion train for visiting school children.

If it is true that privatized passenger railroads cannot break even or make profits in America, that status is more believable in light of this film. Political factions wanting to derail plans for future passenger rail service should just encourage people to see Unstoppable . Except that railroad men are heroes in the film and real life. Which way will sentiment lean?

More importantly, the director shows real blue collar and railroad life in Pennsylvania, with the fears of layoffs and early retirements. Under-staffing is real and a movement to investigate the wisdom of one-man train crews is under way.

The filmed version of the runaway train was an engine from a Canadian railroad.

The filmed version of the runaway train was an engine from a Canadian railroad.

On the Crazy Eights, My Brother's Name Is Earl

The supporting cast in this film is good. The engineer responsible for the runaway train is Dewey, played by My Name is Earl's Randy (Ethan Suplee).

Suplee may be as solidly type cast after this film as a fence post driven too far into the ground, but he is believable in Unstoppable.

Dewey is about three notches above Randy on the employability scale and you'll enjoy his ultimate fate. Meanwhile, you'll laugh as the roar of the train he lets get away drowns out his F-words. The kids will love that, too.

Rosario Dawson is the high-powered Yardmaster who controls rail yard operations and dispatch as she fights for control of the Crazy Eights (#777 in the film) and against the unworkable plans of her superior. The lead welder from the yard is brave and comic all at once. A lot of the other railroading people and local residents look real, because they are!

Other Runaway Movies

  • Disaster on the Coastline (1979): Lloyd Bridges, Raymond Burr.
  • Runaway! (1973): Ben Johnson
  • Runaway Train (1985): Jon Voigt, Eric Roberts.
  • Silver Streak (1976): Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.
  • Snow Piercer (2014): Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Tilda Swinton. This film was outstanding, but Harvey Weinstein bought the rights and offered only a limited showing in America because he did not like the ending.
  • Speed (1994): A runaway bus is piloted by Keanu Reeves in an attempt to keep it from exploding.


  • CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. May 15, 2001.
  • Feehan, J. and Lecker, K. Disaster avoided during hours of panic, 66 miles of terror. Toledo Blade (hard copy). January 10, 2013.
  • Runaway Train Stopped After Two Uncontrolled Hours. May 16, 2001 (article removed).
  • Worden, A. Pennsylvania Man Lived the Drama That Inspired Unstoppable. The Inquirer Daily News. November 12, 2010.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Patty Inglish MS


Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 15, 2017:

Hi Ryan - That is exciting to know about the trains and tracks coordination for the film. Sounds like a big job and I hope your patient had a good time with it all! I love this movie.

Ryan from Louisiana, USA on July 14, 2017:

I love this movie. One of my patients was the coordinator of all the trains and tracks that were used to film this movie in PA and OH. I never really learned the true story behind the film so thanks for sharing.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 03, 2013:

Jon Hosfeld, age 62 now, was one of the railroad men that chased the train. He retired after 37 years with the railroad. Hosfeld, Knowlton and Forson were interviewed by several of the media and met President Bush 43.

Terry Forson and Jess Knowlton were or are members of UTU Local 1397, Columbus, Ohio. I saw a picture of both men with Denzel Washington in November 2010. I think that Mr. Knowlton is retired now, although Terry also has grey hair.

Bill on May 03, 2013:

My Grand Father worked on the old Central Railroad years ago, so trains are in my blood and I have always regretted not entering into this respectful and challenging career. But anyway thank you so much for your true story from the other side, I really appreciate it and the show was not all bad. Actually pretty good. Thanks. Oh by the way, was the engineer retiring and did he get his job for life?

Ray, Hanover PA on October 23, 2012:

Patty I have to agree with what pretty much everyone else has said, y ou did a great job putting a face on the story behind the story! I just finished watching Unstoppable, very entertaining! Excellent casting of Frank Barnes and Will Colton. No doubt about it, the film maker did an excellent job portraying this story, with the Hollywood embelishments included. I have always been fascinated by the railroad and this movie made me do some research into the original accident and other rail road stuff. My hats off to you for a great job putting this hub together! =-D

Eddie Knudsen on August 09, 2012:

The movie is fantastic!! I am a train fanatic and found the action and story line very believable. Thank you for bringing to light the real story.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 30, 2012:

It is a fantastic movie that keeps your attention!

IntegrityYes on July 30, 2012:

I definitely voted up. That is a wonderful one,patty. It is so powerful and emotional.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 15, 2012:

Thanks for your comments. Anne C. This is a film I can watch more than once, too. I didn't hear much about it in Central Ohio, either, when it first occurred.

Anne C on March 15, 2012:

I just watched Unstoppable for the second time. Even though I knew the ending I was still on the edge of my seat. I usally love the movies critics hate and this was a great movie. I can do without all the sex and blood I thought it was great movie. I love your piece on it I found it very interesting since I am from Southwestern Ohio. I don't even remember hearing about this story.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 28, 2012:

Denzell Washington certainly turned in a vivid portrayal!

Talia on January 27, 2012:

I love the movie, being from Ohio I think it portrayed the story great.

Warren Baldwin from Kansas on December 07, 2011:

Great article.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 05, 2011:

Thanks for the information. "777" was used only for the film, but the film was also set in Pittsburgh, instead of Ohio. Since that is a fiction for the film, probably more exciting than NW Ohio, there'd be no real re-numbering, but now we know what it would have been. Thanks again.

Commuter Rail on December 05, 2011:

I was on the edge of my seat throughout the movie. But then, they didn't have to spice up the story to make it scary to me. I've woken up many times from dreams about trains that won't stop when they should. But my worst nightmares are where I'm expected to drive a Bus instead of a Train. Truly the stuff of nightmares. ;)

Commuter Rail on December 05, 2011:

I operate commuter trains in the San Francisco Bay Area. Train "777" would be a train traveling between Pittsburg/Baypoint and San Francisco airport that for whatever reason has been removed from service, or will be when it reaches the end of the line. An incident train where something major had occurred would most likely be renamed "950" or 95something, anyway.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 27, 2011:

Linda - I enjoyed your comment. I plan to take a cross-country trip by train in 2012. We've barely any passenger trains in Ohio now - one stop in Cincinnati and 3 or 4 across Lake Erie. I think we need more, especially since Greyhound Bus service was cut back a few years back.

Linda on November 26, 2011:

Saw this movie for the first time (and only the last half, unfortunately) today, and thought it was great. It inspired me to search for the "real" story. Thanks so much for the facts. I can't wait to see the entire movie again. I love trains, and travel Amtrak whenever possible rather than flying or driving--have taken days-long trips in the sleeper cars cross-country, traveled coach and business class--I just love the rails, so this movie was facsinating to me.

NOVA PATTERSON on August 25, 2011:







Belinda Tang on August 03, 2011:

One of the better-filmed action movies I have seen in a while. What impressed me is the entire set feels very real, not only the working class workers but how the scenes were shot without CG. Something very solid about this movie that spoke to me. The honest hard-working man in the street with courage at the core.

Plus it was based on a real story too! Kudos to the real life chaps who stopped the train, you are heros. I don't know if phenol was the load in real life...phenol is heavy duty stuff, real bad news (when I was working in a laboratory, we all had a healthy respect for handling phenol).


Indonesian_Lady on April 14, 2011:

watched this movie several days ago... after finished watching it, i immediately search abt the true event on google... both of them, the conductor and the engineer are really a true hero.. even tho the real incident not as "scary" as the movie.. but still.. u need a lot of courage and guts to do that.... i'm giving my deepest respect to them... and will tell all my fella's in Indonesia to watch this amazing based-on-true-events-movie!!!

The Jet from The Bay on April 10, 2011:

I was skeptical about this film, but I believe you've sparked interest. Thanks.

brent on February 22, 2011:

That video was awesome cool nice video

Support Med. from Michigan on January 29, 2011:

Clever edition of: "This is an all-new Training Day type of experience for Washington as well as the new man." That was a really good movie!! I have not yet seen 'Unstoppable,' but will definitely purchase once it's on DVD. I can only imagine it is somewhat similar to 'Speed' with Keanu Reeves. Not surprised critics turned their noses to it, as they do not want to face the 'what could have happened.' And of course, we are all glad that no was harmed in any way. Those men were really brave. Voted and rated.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 18, 2011:

Thank you so much to all of you that have commented!

@Julie, Jenny and LaChelle - I was certainly not bored with the story and it caused me to want to search out the newspaper files and magazine articles.

@AskAshlie3433 - Thanks for the kind words! It took quite a while to build up a number of Hubs and I find that writing one a day is the key to a certain kind of success.

AskAshlie3433 from WEST VIRGINIA on January 17, 2011:

What a great story. I liked the movie. It kept me interested. To the Queen of Hub Patty, another great hub!

1400 plus and counting, truly remarkable Patty. Just wanted to say hi to the Queen! Best wishes Patty. You truly are remarkable.

Jenny on January 08, 2011:

Saw this film yesterday and went searching for the real story to fill in my dim memory of events. Film critics found this film boring? Were they at the right movie? I was on the edge of my seat for most of the time and I'm glad it wasn't longer - I'm not sure my heart would have lasted! Best action/drama flick I've seen in a very long time and have recommended it to my friends and family. Thanks for the information.

LaChelle on January 02, 2011:

I just watched the movie(loved it:)) and immediatley began searching for the details on the actual event. Thank you for sharing the history behind the film and highlighting the heroes

misSbLurRy on December 01, 2010:

i just watched this movie and i can't imagine how its worse at that time...and thanx 4 this hub coz it made me more clearly bout this accident .

movies star on November 28, 2010:

After reading this hub.

Maybe you are right about the children want to work for

the railroads.

good.... thank you.

JulieBMack from Colorado on November 19, 2010:

thanks for this review - I wasn't aware that is was tied into a real story. Good action films don't always require CGI - look at The Fugitive (I am dating myself) - another great movie that actually involved a real train going off the track! Thanks!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 18, 2010:

@Bail Up - Let us know how you like it. Thanks for posting.

@Ben Zoltak - Thank you, Ben Zoltak. I always appreciate your posts.

Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on November 18, 2010:

I love that you stand up to the critics and stand against the much maligned American train industry. Just like solid funding for education, the results are not necessarily easily quantified (per profitably) but the increase in wealth and happiness is apparent in the long term.

In the driving instructor industry we say, "always expect a train."



Bail Up ! on November 15, 2010:

What's a story without a bit of embellishment? Some people just don't know how to have fun! I think the story itself is fascinating and worthy of watching the movie. Thanks for review, I'll be watching Unstoppable.