WETASKIWIN — As Jonathan Hambler clung with his bare hands to the freezing metal of a freight train that was barrelling into the unknown darkness of a frigid prairie night, it occurred to him he’d made one pretty big mistake.
Just a short time before, in the wee hours of Dec. 11, the 29-year-old left a bar in Wetaskiwin, to escort a drunk friend home. It was —20 C, after all, and Hambler wanted to make sure nothing bad happened.
That’s when he came up with the worst idea of his life.
“I just wanted to get across town a little quicker than walking,” he said Wednesday of his decision to hop on a slow-moving freight train to get home a couple of dozen blocks away.
“I was going to jump off real soon, and I thought, ’give it a couple more seconds, it might slow down.’ But it just kept going faster.”
Hambler’s headline-making wild ride had a relatively happy ending of course — just a couple of days in hospital getting treatment for frostbite, along with a fine of up to $2,000 from Canadian Pacific Railway for petty trespass.
But lest anyone consider it a lark, Hambler has overcome his embarrassment sufficiently enough to come forward with his story for two reasons: first, to thank his rescuers, and second, to emphasize that what he did was no laughing matter.
“Everybody kind of thinks I’m joking about it, but it’s really nothing to joke about,” the soft-spoken and sombre young man said in an interview Wednesday.
“I feel pretty stupid.”
Hambler said when the train began to pick up speed, he didn’t know at first what to think. He admits he had a pretty good buzz going and was “just kind of lost.”
But once the train left town, reality started to sink in fast.
“This is pretty serious,” he recalled thinking. “It started scaring me when I started getting a little cold.”
Hambler was ill-prepared for the ride, which reached speeds of 90 kilometres an hour. He was wearing no gloves, thin pants, sneakers and a winter jacket. Perched between cars, he was at the mercy of the wind and the bitter cold.
Luckily, he had the one thing that could save him, his cell phone.
“As soon as it started getting colder, I just called 911,” he said. “I was kinda hoping it would work, because my phone was dying at the time.”
The 911 operator had trouble hearing him, but her message came through loud and clear.
“She just asked me, straight up, what the hell I was doing on the train,” he admitted. “Well, it was only supposed to go a couple of blocks.”
The operator contacted RCMP, who quickly came up with an ingenious plan. They knew two trains were operating out of Wetaskiwin that night, and had to figure out how to quickly determine which one carried Hambler.
They contacted the engineers on both trains and asked them to blow their whistles at different times.
“When I was on the phone, she asked me if I could hear them blow the horn,” said Hambler. “I heard the horn go off, and they just pretty much stopped the train and walked up the tracks until they found me.”
By the time the officers found him, Hambler was hypothermic and was drifting in and out of consciousness. He doesn’t remember a lot about the rescue except that the officers were extremely kind.
“They were real good to me. They just pretty much wanted to get me safe, get me warm,” he said, adding they gave him their jackets and toques until they could get him to an ambulance.
Hambler said he wants all those who helped in the rescue, who he calls “my guardian angels,” to know how grateful he is.
And he wants them to know he does not take the experience lightly.
“It’s changed me, opened my eyes quite a bit,” he said. “I could have fallen off. Anything could have happened.”
In fact, what bothers him the most is some of the ribbing he’s gotten from friends and family.
“Some of my friends are like, ’oh, that’s crazy, you’re awesome,’ ” he explained, his voice dropping so low it was almost hard to hear. “It’s like, ’no, man, I’m not awesome. I just about died.’
“Reality kicked me in the face.”