New Year’s Day 1968 greeted residents of Dunreith, Indiana with record cold minus 16 F temperatures not seen in decades.
The 236 souls of this small Henry County community that straddles US 40 and the Pennsylvania Railroad spent the holiday enjoying the Rose Bowl parade and football game on television. People found hope and joy wherever they could as the mood of the country seemed as cold and harsh as the weather thanks to the ongoing conflicts of Vietnam and the Middle East among others across the globe.
Still, on January first there is always the promise of a new beginning, along with the spate of births vying for bragging rights of being the first born in the New Year. Seven births took place in area hospitals with the earliest in Indiana coming at 12:37am. However, a five-pound, eight-ounce baby boy born to an Ohio couple just thirty seconds after midnight had a very good chance of not only being the first in the state of Ohio but possibly the nation.
With the canning plant and other businesses closed for the holiday it was quiet in Dunreith as traffic on the highway and railroad ambled through town as usual.
At approximately 9:30 pm a westbound PRR freight, PR11A (Extra 2210, West) entered the interlocking plant at the east edge of town where the Nickel Plate branch from New Castle crossed the Pennsy. The five units and 98 cars were making 42 mph when the 88th car, AESX 850 an empty tank car, derailed. AESX 850 continued westward until hitting a grade crossing where the derailed truck separated from the car sending it into eastbound train SW-6 (Extra 2217, East) also coming through town with 106 cars moving at 32 mph.
As the inertia of both trains played out, one or more cars from Extra 2210 West collided with several tank cars containing hazardous materials including ammonia, gasoline and oil, which ignited an explosion and fire. The fire quickly spread to other tank cars in the eastbound and also to the nearby Dunreith Canning Plant, where the liquid fertilizer inside touched off more explosions. Things were happening fast and would only get worse.
Emergency calls went out and fire and police units from fifteen nearby communities as well as state and county officers raced to the scene. Upon arrival however, none could get closer than a city block because of the intense heat from the burning cars. An attempt wouldn’t be made to approach the cars until daylight on Tuesday.
The burning tank cars were worrisome enough but forty-five minutes after the initial derailment, a car full of ethylene oxide exploded into a massive fireball.
In the chaos that followed, numerous homes and businesses suffered damage from the concussion of the blast. Two houses and a gas station were destroyed by fire and broken windows were everywhere along with more severe damage to buildings closer to the scene. Not knowing what they were dealing with police moved quickly to seal off the area and redirecting traffic on US 40 and State Route 3 due to the risk of further explosions and exposure from the hazardous chemicals.
Tuesday January 2.
By 12:30 am the fires seemed to be subsiding a bit but a southeast wind worried officials as it was blowing smoke and fumes over the town, so the authorities ordered the evacuation of the entire town. All 236 residents evacuated quickly and safely to nearby communities or sheltered with friends and relatives out of the danger zone.
Daylight revealed the extent of the damage. A tank farm west of the canning plant was destroyed by fire, with two of the ammonia tanks apparently exploding. The cemetery south of town was littered with cans blown from the canning plant. As late as Tuesday afternoon, sealed cans of vegetables were still overheating and exploding at random, adding to the tension of firefighters and police on scene.
Of greatest concern though was a tank car leaking aceton cyanohydrin*, a nasty chemical that turns to cyanide gas when exposed to water. A quantity of the chemical leaked into nearby Buck Creek and state health officials dumped crystallized chlorine into the creek to prevent further pollution, but a number of livestock on area farms died from drinking the polluted water and dead fish were reported as far south as fifteen miles from the scene. Residents were warned not to use water from local wells and cisterns until it could be checked for contamination. Small doses of cyanide gas were released causing some people to suffer from headaches but the fumes were not strong enough to be deadly.
As the danger began to subside by Tuesday afternoon, male residents were allowed back to check their homes for damage and to gather needed belongings and secure their homes against the cold. Power was out and wouldn’t be restored for a while. The Indiana State Police patrolled the empty town to prevent looting.
Wednesday January 3.
The fires were finally out and the long cleanup began in earnest. Railroad maintenance crews and equipment descended to clear the wreckage and rebuild the tracks. Still of critical concern was the leaking tank car. Trucks from Liquid Transporter of Louisville, Kentucky arrived to empty the car and transfer the contents. A safety supervisor for the firm said that they couldn’t spill even a spoonful. “It’s deadly.” was the quote of the day for the newspapers.
Because of the torn up condition of the roadbed, the tanker trucks were only loaded to half capacity, with that load then transferred to other trucks waiting on US 40. Company officials were concerned about a full truck getting bogged down in the soft ground.
Cleanup of the right-of-way and highway proceeded as quickly as conditions allowed and officials believed both could be reopened to traffic on Thursday January 4th. Rail traffic was diverted north to Anderson, Indiana with highway traffic to the nearby interstate. The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday evening, though many residents were still fearful of returning, or wanted to make repairs before bringing their families back home.
Miraculously, no deaths or serious injuries occurred in the devastation and fires. Three people reported injuries but none were serious. The owners of the two houses destroyed by the fires were out of town for the holidays. The canning plant, gas station and other businesses were closed otherwise the loss of life might have been much greater.
Among the residents and eyewitnesses, the most common description was it was like an atomic bomb went off. “That explosion lit up the whole sky.” many said. Buildings were damaged for miles. Debris linked to the wreckage was found as far away as six miles. The concussion from the blast was felt in far-flung communities in every direction.
The National Transportation Safety Board report concluded that a broken rail joint caused the initial derailment, with the errant truck eventually hitting the timbers of a grade crossing where it separated from the car causing the collision with the passing train on the adjacent track. As a result of this incident, the NTSB issued a series of reports and recommendations that formed the basis for the hazardous materials safety protocols still in use today.
January 1, 2018
This is less of a story about a train wreck than it is about the railroad and our memories of it. For younger people, it’s hard to understand the impact the railroad once had, not just when things went horribly wrong as told above but on everyday life. I feel fortunate that I had the experiences with trains and railroading that I did. They would be impossible today because the line I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore. The rails between Richmond and Indianapolis, which included Centerville and Dunreith were removed in the mid-1980s and there are few clues left to follow in 2018.
A town without rail service isn’t a unique story anymore. Today, lots of people will never encounter a train in everyday circumstances. For others, their only experience with trains will be from a distance or the artificial environment of some tourist line or a theme park’s scripted scenarios that are far removed from reality.
The railroad still plays an important role in the nation’s economy but that role is more hidden and abstract than it once was. We don’t go down to the express office to pick up a parcel anymore; now, a guy in a brown uniform drops it at the front door. What happens to our memory and understanding when the railroad doesn’t stop here anymore?
A first principle of model building is that we look to full-size trains for inspiration, yet that inspiration gets buried under the exaggerated focus given to track planning, bench work heights and other minutia. Too many believe that this minutia is the craft, rather than simply tools for expressing something deeper and more meaningful.
I feel fortunate to have the memories I do and I reflect on the inspiration they provide that continues to draw me to the tracks. These days I wonder how memory shapes our involvement in the craft? What if you don’t have such memories, what do you do then? In a couple of weeks, that’s the subject for next time.
The Palladium-Item, January 1-4, 1968, editions from the newspaper archives at Morrisson Reeves Library, Richmond, Indiana.
*Not certain of the spelling for this chemical. It is as spelled in the newspaper account