Thursday, June 5, 2008

Deadly mystery: the Youngstown train disaster of 1978

It should have been a ho-hum trip, one of hundreds engineer Ray Shores had made between Panama City and Dothan, Alabama, for Bay Line Railways. It was 2 am Sunday, Feb. 26, 1978, and Shores' 142-car, five-locomotive train was headed back to Panama City at a steady 40 mph.

As the train appoached Youngstown, Florida--a tiny, tight-knit community in northern Bay County--a blanket of fog lay low, obscuring the tracks as if the train were chugging towards eternity itself. Shores eased up on the throttle.

Suddenly: the unthinkable.

In Shores' ear shrieked the unmistakable, grinding, metal-on-metal sound of locomotive wheels flying off the rails. "The train took a sudden drop--about two feet," Shores recalled later, "and the next thing I knew the locomotive was in the sand." The train's cars careened wildly off the tracks, piling upon one another like a child's pick-up sticks.

What happened next seemed like a scene from a horror movie. One of the derailed tank cars overturned and ruptured. From the aperture hissed a sickly yellow-green smoke--a highly poisonous brew of deadly chlorine gas--and a cloud of it began enveloping the area like acid snow.

Driving south along Highway 231, which parallels the Bay Line tracks, a Ford Cougar carrying four teenagers drove up to the smouldering wreckage, apparently seeking a first-hand look. It was a fatal error. First the chlorine deprived the Cougar's engine of oxygen required for combustion. Then the car stalled and the teens, stranded at the scene, choked to death. Four passengers in a passing Buick suffered a similar fate.

By the time sheriff's deputies arrived, the gaseous deathcloud was spreading. Nearly 3,000 area residents over a 40-square mile area were hurridly evacuated.

A few brave residents remained to help. Fred Hyatt, who lived in a trailer behind his grocery store located a mile from the wreck, was awakened by police within minutes of the derailment. After ferrying his four kids to safety, Hyatt and his wife returned to aid rescue workers. "We brewed coffee and made our phone available," Hyatt, 76, remembers today. "We stayed as long as we could, but eventually we had to leave as the cloud was creeping closer."

At the scene, emergency medical technicians scrambled to save residents and passing motorists who were gagging on fumes. One man, stuck in a stalled car, had the presence of mind to grab his scuba gear from the back seat; the precious oxygen saved his life. A heliocopter from nearby Tyndall Air Force Base lowered a sling and plucked members of the train crew, including Shores, to safety.

All told, the derailment resulted in eight fatalities and nearly 100 injuries, many to the rescue workers themselves.

Within days, a massive clean-up effort was underway. Work crews in gas masks neutralized the punctured tank car with chemical foam, then pulled it into a crater with a bulldozer, where it lay like a brontosaurus in a tar pit.

Members of the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board soon converged on the tiny community. Their investigation lasted nine months. The NTSB conclusion: the derailment was the result of sabotage, the deliberate removal of bolts from the rails. The FBI, however, disageed, claiming they could find no such evidence.

Fred Hyatt has his own ideas. "This was more than just an accident," Hyatt says. "Trains came and went every day with no problems. Something was placed on those tracks. Whoever did it, though, probably had no idea the train was carrying chlorine gas."

No arrests were ever made. Today, after more than a quarter century, the tragic Youngstown train derailment of 1978 remains as much a mystery as ever.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18


J Michael said...

We all know what happened that night. My friends were in that Cougar. It is alledged that one of them switched the mechanism that directs the train onto a side track. At 40 mph the locomotive just couldn't negotiate the sudden change in direction. As my friends sat in their car to watch what would happen they were overcome by the gas and died.I lived a mile from the scene and had to evacuate as well. Fred Hyatt owned a Exxon gas station and I was good friends with his kids as we all went to school together. My friend that died is buried in the Youngstown Cemetary. We were gone 6 days and returned home to much dead vegitation and the loss of all the farm animals.

dromahtyz said...

Very interesting I heard of this story ten years ago living in fountain fl. I would love to get or hear more info on this.

RCaparros said...

HazMat Experts and Firefighters petition Dow Chemical and Union Pacific for safe rail tank cars transporting gas chlorine. Secondary containment is a necessary improvement that must be implemented. See--PETITION C KIT for First Responders Comments.

b keith Vipperman said...

231 was and is a busy highway so I am sure i am one of many people who drove though the area shortly before it happened. It was a very foggy night at that area.. for some reason my dates mother had asked us to go to the early movie in panama city to get home sooner. Marianna fl didn't have any good movies or a real theater back then... You had to drive to dothan Alabama or panama city to see the new good movies .. a very sick feeling to read the event that happened that could have happened to me and my date if we had been traveling a little later .. when death crosses so close to your path it is a feeling at least l with me I didn't soon or have not forgotten the very creepy feeling f surviving something other people did not in life . .. i have had more than a few close call is in life that other people dont survive medically and other the things .. life is a blessing a truly precious thing as long as we are alive we have a chance to contribute to life , to have a dream come true finally or have a miracle happen in our lives which make our lives something much better and special both to oneself and to t others.. I often wonder whygod has chosen so many time to make and let me survive .. i am not real impressed with the station i have in life or the contributions i am actually allowed to give with the disabilities i have in life.. you do not need to go to war or be in prisonor of war cam to have ptsd on the high end of the crippling scale .. with each survival comes a little less of actual ability to contribute .. please know any contributions i make to life no matter how small perhaps took great effort and help from god to actually do for some people ...sometimes the things we bring forward in life are more profound and useful than a lot of the big ideas of the daze ff the current giants of thought or deed .. on a human level and the furthermore of civilization level of contributions to things actually known by experience to be facts and truths ....their many manifestations and uses because we have had to wallow in all the wrong alleys to find the one we can move forward in .. the alley we see and have seen we sometimes know would be perfect for theirs if they just had the actual knowledge that some handicapped? people have. could be the jumping ahead place for people without disabilities if they only understood the truth of the particular thing in life .. which they have the handicap of thinking they dont need the voice and wisdom of the experience of the handicapped in life /..

Amber Lawrence said...

I heard about it through older family members hardly no one knows about it today.Still til this day trees are deformed and grass an under bush had a hard time growing. P.C. FL

Panamaed said...

Is there a list of casualties?

Valerie Debolt said...

I wonder about the effects this has had on people's health years later I was one of those evacuated back then I remember it well