Runaway Train was Soul Asylum’s breakthrough hit in 1993, winning the Grammy for Best Rock Song and hitting number five at the Billboard Hot 100. But that’s not the impressive part. What’s remarkable about this song is that its music video led to the recovery of 21 missing children. The video for the song featured a total of 36 missing children and runaways.
Ironically, the song was never even meant to be so influential. The band’s lead singer, Dave Pirner, who said the song “just kind of rolled off my brain,” unwittingly reunited 21 kids with their families. Pretty incredible, right? Well, there’s a lot more to the story than just the miraculous outcome.
Dave Pirner wrote the song about depression, which took him a few years to complete. Initially, the lyrics were different – including the refrain “laughing at the rain,” which he felt was too similar to the Neil Sedaka song, Laughter in the Rain. He said he had the tune in his head for a while, but only later did the metaphor of runaway train/depression hit him.
At that point, suddenly feeling enlightened, he sat down and wrote the lyrics in a single sitting. According to Pirner, the positive reaction to Runaway Train came even before it was released. “I think the song just kind of rolled off my brain,” the now 57-year-old recalled.
As opposed to the songs that sometimes took him five or six years to make, Runaway Train came to him quickly. In fact, it took him a mere half-hour to write it. After writing it, he showed it to the band, and they liked it. “It was really the first time I wrote a song, and people had an immediate reaction.”
Pirner said he didn’t really understand why people were so taken aback by the song. “I was too naïve to realize they were all seeing dollar signs.” Soul Asylum was a shabby-looking quartet of ex-punks from Minneapolis. They would play melodic, roots-rock that had touching honesty and often an uplifting message.
After spending about a decade at the bottom of the indie world, Soul Asylum finally broke ground in 1992 with their seventh album, Grave Dancers Union. They made four charting singles, but their third, Runaway Train, was the one that stood out. The ballad about love and loss became the band’s defining moment.
Amazingly, it wasn’t just the band members’ lives that changed as a result. What fueled the song’s popularity was the music video, directed by Tony Kaye (who went on to direct American History X), which showed photos of actual missing children or runaways (combined with images of the band performing the song, of course). According to Rolling Stone, the video “led to the location and recovery of 21 of the 36 missing kids.”
In an attempt to avoid the usual rock ’n’ roll clichés of MTV and rock music videos, Soul Asylum chose to deliver a message with their video. The clip that featured photographs and names of missing children ended with a plea from Pirner himself: “If you’ve seen one of these kids, or you are one of them, please call this number.”
Despite the fact that missing kids were not on Pirner’s mind when he wrote the song, he saw it as an opportunity to do some good. “Whatever good came out of it, I think, is something we should be proud of,” he said.
Alternate versions were then made for other countries, like Canada and England, and their missing children. Pirner noted how the video caught on “in a public service announcement sort of way.” It’s not every day that a rock music video transcends into real life in such a profound way.
On the contrary, most clips of the time had skinny blonde girls doing cartwheels over parked Jaguars (the cars). “It was a really cool experience to realize that there is the potential for entertainment to have a positive effect on the real world,” Pirner stated.
During their early discussions with Tony Kaye about the video, the director kept saying, “milk cartons, milk cartons.” The band asked him what he was talking about, to which Kaye said, “The kids on milk cartons – we should try to find them.”
For Pirner, it was a radical idea, and he loved it. As a matter of fact, the was so radical a concept that Columbia, the band’s record label at the time, almost axed the idea. And it makes sense. Record companies, at least in those days, saw videos as a promotional tool for a record.
Artists aren’t supposed to be making some sort of social or political statement with their music videos, as the lead singer explained. The way he saw it was: “But why don’t we try?” In the end, they managed to get the video through the system, come out on the other end, and actually see the positive effects that the video produced.
It was an incredible thing for Pirner and his band to experience. To this day, Pirner is involved with The Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the very same organization they worked with on the video.
Okay, so who were these 36 missing or runaway kids? And how did they choose which children to feature in the video? It began with the milk carton kids. Remember the disappearance of Etan Patz – the boy who was abducted in SoHo in May 1979?
He may just be the most famous missing American child, and it’s partly because the boy’s face was displayed on the side of a milk carton. That milk carton kid lit the spark for director Tony Kaye, who said he was “driving home one night, and I saw a poster… where it was missing kids on the carton.”
It was Kaye who wanted to make the video about missing children. For four and a half minutes, you see the band singing along with photos of real missing children and the date each disappeared. Soul Asylum and Kaye worked closely with Ernie Allen, the founder of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
When Kaye contacted Allen, he was enthusiastic. Allen spoke about the power of the milk carton campaign. “Photos of missing children work,” he said. If enough people get to see the best possible images and information of these kids, there’s a much better chance of finding a missing child.
Both Allen and Kaye agreed to focus on “endangered runaways,” – the ones the U.S. Department of Justice defines as children who were “physically or sexually abused at home” or were “substance dependent” or “in the company of someone known to be abusing drugs.”
They also chose children who had been missing for at least a few years. Also, their absence had to have been reported to the authorities and entered into the FBI’s national crime database. Finally, it was crucial that the parents granted permission to broadcast their child’s photo. But which parent wouldn’t want a chance to find their child?
At the time, there were 1.6 million runaways being reported each year. But unlike the ones that run away from home on the weekends, these were kids who had been missing a while and were at greater risk of harm. Runaway Train alludes to a dark reality in its closing minute…
That sometimes, what looks like a runaway is actually an abduction. “You don’t ever really know, in most missing persons cases, what the circumstances are,” Allen asserted. He was glad to be able to use a rock music video to get mass exposure on these kids.
First, he wanted Kaye to make him a promise: if any child was recovered, his or her photo had to immediately be removed from circulation and replaced with another missing child. Logistically, this was a bit of a challenge.
It meant that if things went according to plan, the director would have to repeatedly recut the video. But it was a good problem, so to speak. When the video came out in May 1993, there were 13 children featured. 16-year-old Elizabeth Wiles was the first one to make it home…
“I liked a guy who was older than me, and my parents told me no,” Wiles later recalled. She’s now in her 40s and lives with her husband in Tennessee, working as a real estate broker and contractor. Wiles is one of the few now-adult children – who were once missing and now found – to agree to speak about the video and her past.
Wiles was 13 when she left her family home in Lamar, Arkansas. The pre-teen and her boyfriend, Ron, hitchhiked their way to California (where she and her family used to live).
Ron worked odd jobs until the young couple could afford a place of their own. If anyone asked, Wiles was 17. “People didn’t seem to be overly concerned about a 17-year-old having a dysfunctional family and leaving home, and people kind of sympathized with me a little bit and just looked the other way,” she said in an interview.
Wiles and Ron ended up staying in California for two and a half years while her family and friends were worried sick about her whereabouts. In May 1993, the pair were at a friend’s house in San Diego, and MTV was on…
They weren’t paying much attention to the TV, but then Wiles saw her own face on the screen! Her biological father, Duane, had given her photo to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
He never consulted with Elizabeth’s mother and his ex-wife, Debra. Nonetheless, the Runaway Train video had begun airing that month, and more and more people were seeing her face. “I just kind of freaked out,” Wiles recalled of that moment. A week later, after some real consideration, she called her mother.
Debra hadn’t heard from her daughter since she left the house – not even a postcard was sent. As both mother and daughter wept on the phone, Wiles apologized and said she was now ready to come back home. A self-described “stubborn person,” Wiles admitted that she never even tried to contact her mom.
There were no accusations or blaming; Debra was simply happy to have her daughter back. According to Wiles, her mother always suspected she was alive – she just didn’t know for sure. “She said that she knew I was okay, that if there was something wrong, she would know,” Wiles said.
After her return, life slowly got back to normal. The teen had house rules to abide by, but she didn’t run away again. Wiles ended up meeting Soul Asylum once backstage at a concert in Little Rock. In August of 1993, she appeared on NBC with her mom, Dave Pirner, and Ernie Allen.
While she dropped out of college, she said she has a really nice life – “running away made me who I am.” Without a doubt, the song Runaway Train has remained a part of her life. She thought about how she hears it a few times every year.
Sometimes, she and her husband will be shopping, and they hear the song playing in the background. They both just pause and reflect on it, being the only ones in the place who know the meaning behind it.
Due to the promise that the video would be cut if a child came home, multiple versions of the video exist. There’s one version on YouTube, however, that has way more views than the others: over 60 million. In this version, at about 3:30, you can see a photo of Martha Wes Dunn…
Dunn vanished from Daingerfield, Texas, on September 5, 1990. In the photo, 15-year-old Dunn is holding a black dog. She had a scar on her cheek from an injury in her childhood. Her father reported her missing early the next morning.
Morris County Sheriff’s Department’s Chief Deputy Robbie Gray, who took the case, has been on it since 1999. He recounted the story of Martha Dunn in an interview. She lived with her parents in Texas and was planning to start the school year on September 4 – the day before her disappearance.
Dunn was unhappy about the new year and argued with her parents. The last time they saw her was at their home on September 5, around 2:20 p.m. That night, around 10, Dunn talked with her boyfriend on the phone, 17-year-old Eric Owens.
The next day, Dunn and Owens were gone. It was thought that the teenaged couple ran away together to Hayworth, Oklahoma, where his aunt lived. The two were even reportedly seen there “several times.” The aunt, however, denied this. Another theory held that Dunn and Owens hitchhiked to Kansas, where Owens’s mother was living.
Neither theory proved true, though. On September 30, a few weeks after Dunn’s disappearance, her father, John, called the police. He told them that he got a call from a friend in Durant, Oklahoma, who told John that he saw Dunn and Owens looking “dirty and hungry.”
He allegedly got them cleaned up and fed. Dunn’s father told all of this to the deputy, but the authorities never found them. There was also a much darker theory that Dunn’s father suggested: maybe Owens, who was involved with drugs in Oklahoma, had been targeted by a drug dealer who kidnapped them both.
Then again, there was no ransom demand and no signs of anything like that. Sadly, neither Dunn nor Owens were seen again. Deputy Robbie Gray did say this: “her parents… they were kind of strange.” When this happened, he actually thought, “Okay, yeah, she’s trying to get out from underneath them.”
By the time Runaway Train aired on MTV, “things went cold,” said Gray. Even the extremely popular video didn’t move the needle much in the Dunn case. There was the one tip that Dunn was working as a waitress in New Boston, but it wasn’t true. Dunn is one of only two long-term missing children cases in Morris County over the last three decades.
Sadly, not all the kids in the video made it back home. Another one was a kid from Eagan, Minnesota. On a Friday morning in April of 1990, a 17-year-old named Christopher Matthew Kerze told his mother, Alona, that he had a headache.
Having no reason to be suspicious, she agreed to let him stay home from school. She then did what she did every day – she went to work. But when she came back home, at around 3 p.m. that afternoon, Christopher wasn’t around.
Alona found a letter on the kitchen table. Christopher scribbled down some words:
“Mom, something important came up + feeling somewhat better.
Back by six. (Unless I get lost.)
For some reason, the words “get lost” were underlined twice. Alona then noticed that the family van was gone, along with their dog, Bowser, who had gotten loose, which was odd considering he was usually leashed during the day. The afternoon turned to evening, and then to night. By the time 10 p.m. rolled around, there was still no sign of her son.
So, she called her sister who also lived in the area, and then her husband, Jim, who left the house early that morning. The credit analyst had gone to Wisconsin for a business trip. On the news of their missing son, Jim immediately drove back home.
He pulled into the driveway after midnight. And still, there was no sign of Christopher. At that point, Patrick, the younger brother, told his parents something quite chilling. Patrick told them that dad’s bolt action 20-gauge shotgun – which he kept in the closet and separate from the ammunition — was missing. “We just went crazy at that moment,” said Jim.
The day after their son left, Jim and Alona got an envelope in the mail, postmarked Duluth. There was another handwritten letter addressed to “Mom, Dad, and Readers.” Christopher wrote that he had lied about being sick so that he could take the family’s 1988 blue Dodge Caravan “to not even I know where.”
He even noted that he intended to commit suicide and didn’t give a reason. But he understood how much it would hurt his family, and for that, he expressed his regret. “Take heart,” he wrote, “because if just one person is better off for having known me, my life will not have been wasted.”
The following day, two days after Christopher was last seen, police found the family van in Itasca County in northern Minnesota, abandoned by the side of the road. While the van was found, the teenager wasn’t. All these years later, no one really knows what exactly happened.
When he had left the house, he took a shotgun with him, but not the ammunition. Ultimately, no traces of him have ever been found — not his clothes, not the shotgun, not his glasses. His body was never found. As far as everyone involved saw it, he’s missing until he’s found.
In the beginning, Christopher’s disappearance didn’t get much media attention. The city of Eagan only had about 64,000 residents, yet they had their share of missing persons. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to have two or three runaway missing person cases in a weekend,” a detective in the Eagan police department stated.
Since Christopher’s disappearance, hundreds of minors in the area have run away. And among them, only one young woman remains unaccounted for. Most of the time, the cases are runaways – kids who don’t want to follow house rules.
But that wasn’t the case with Christopher. “He’s always been a very great kid,” Jim said. He was a National Merit Scholar semi-finalist, a member of the National Honor Society, and was part of the high school swim team.
Christopher loved camping, skiing, computers, laser tag. He played cello and clarinet in school. “He was a smart kid, a good sense of humor,” his father declared. So, what happened? In 1994, the teen had already been gone for four years, and the local investigation had made no progress, with only “a handful” of tips.
Then, one day, Christopher’s case suddenly gotten a great deal of publicity. Thanks to Runaway Train, Christopher’s face was now seen on millions of screens. Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of the lucky 21 who were reunited with their families in the end.
The uncertainty of what happened to their son has been both hopeful and torturous for Jim and Alona. “My pipe dream is that Christopher works for a little company in Cleveland, is married and has three kids.” Although Christopher wasn’t found, many others were, and we have Tony Kaye specifically to thank for that…
It’s been more nearly 30 years since the song’s release, and it continues to resonate, even in Pirner’s family life. He has a teenaged child himself, and the song has affected the way he parents. Runaway Train has made him more protective than he otherwise would have been.
“I was probably more aware of the possibilities of creeps and predators,” Pirner said. “It seems hard for me to even explain something like that to a kid without scaring him, but I guess that’s the whole idea.”
The song and its video made Soul Asylum soar to superstardom, even if it was only for a little while. The album went double-platinum, and the band rode the wave of its success well into the ‘90s. But then they came to a stop in 1998, exhausted and ready for a break.
The band has since reunited, but without their founding member, bass player Karl Mueller, who passed away in 2005. For the song’s 25th anniversary, artists Jamie N Commons, Skylar Grey, and Gallant recorded an updated version of Runaway Train.
The new version is more orchestral than the acoustic original and is again in collaboration with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. In the new video, a statement appears: “Every year, there are over 400,000 missing kids in the U.S.”
The incredible thing about this version, in this day and age, is that The Runaway Train 25 website uses “geo-targeting technology.” This means that viewers who watch the song on the official site get specific information about missing children from their area.
We’ve been hearing about the song and its video this whole time, but if you stuck around this long, then you might want to know a little bit about the band. Soul Asylum originally grew out of a band called Loud Fast Rules, which was formed in 1981 by drummer and lead singer Dave Pirner, guitarist and backing singer Dan Murphy, and bassist Karl Mueller.
Loud Fast Rules released two cassettes in 1982: Barefoot and Pregnant. Eventually, they became Soul Asylum and started performing around the Minneapolis–St. Paul area.
The band quickly developed a core following known for their stage shows. They toured non-stop in their early years and compared to the popular underground alternative styles at the time, people were struck by Soul Asylum’s style.
They had such on-stage swagger, a Midwestern appearance and were extremely loud. An early review of them described their sound as “some unholy mix of Kiss and Hank Williams thrown under the wheels of a runaway train.” It came to a point where they weren’t selling records, and Pirner was experiencing hearing problems, so the group considered disbanding.
Then, they recorded Grave Dancers Union, their most popular album. But after Runaway Train, it was hard for them to meet the same level of success. In 1997, they performed a benefit concert for students in North Dakota whose prom was canceled because of the Red River Flood that year.
Some of the songs that they played at the prom were later released on After the Flood: Live from the Grand Forks Prom in 2004. The next year, the band released Candy from a Stranger, which was unsuccessful, and Columbia Records dropped them from their label.
Pirner became friends with director Kevin Smith, a longtime Soul Asylum fan, leading the band to contribute music to three of his films: Clerks, Clerks II, and Chasing Amy. Smith then directed the music video for the band’s song Can’t Even Tell, which was on the Clerks soundtrack.
The band toured throughout the 2000s, and as recently as 2020, they released their 12th studio album, Hurry Up and Wait. They started performing again in June of 2021.