Down From the Clouds

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

When Gary Krist read the old woman's diary, he finally knew he had a story.

The Bethesda-based writer, whose new book is "The White Cascade," flew to Seattle in the winter of 2003 to look into a horrific but largely forgotten railroad disaster. Nearly a century before, in late February 1910, a relentless blizzard had stalled two westbound Great Northern Railway trains -- a passenger train and a mail train -- trying to make their way through Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains. For days the snow piled up, and the passengers got more and more apprehensive.

"They say it has snowed 13 ft in 11 hours," wrote Sarah Jane Covington, 69, in the diary Krist was examining. "The mts. loom up a thousand feet or thousands . . . the tel. wires are down. No communication with the world."

Krist already knew how the petite, white-haired grandmother's story would end. On March 1, a little before 2 a.m., a wall of snow estimated at 14 feet high and a half-mile wide would sweep the trains off the tracks and hurl them into the ravine below, killing nearly 100 passengers and railroaders, including Covington.

He knew that this catastrophe still ranked as the deadliest American avalanche ever -- an object lesson from an age of technological hubris that would see the Titanic meet its iceberg two years later.

He knew, once he'd seen Covington's diary and a few other documents like it, that he had a wrenching human tale to tell along with the technological one.

What Krist didn't know was whether he could pull it off.

After all, he'd spent his whole career as a fiction writer. He lacked experience with the storytelling constraints imposed by facts.

* * *

At 49, Gary Krist has had the kind of career that should be taught in literary workshops so that wide-eyed young people who want to be writers could learn just what they are getting into.

A tall, bearded man with an easy laugh and a relaxed manner, Krist was such a wide-eyed young person himself once. As a high-school student in Fort Lee, N.J., "I had this romantic notion of being a writer, but I never wrote," he says.

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