Death before dawn
Decatur’s Norfolk and Western railyard explosion of 1974 and how it changed an industry
The early morning hours of July 19, 1974, were like any other in the Norfolk and Western railroad yard in Decatur. The forecast was typical for July – hot, sunny, and with a gentle breeze blowing from the northwest. At 5:03 a.m., the third shift crew busily switched car drafts on the 23-track Westbound Yard, while other employees slept in the railroad’s Annex, a makeshift hotel and cafe for those who lived out of town but were stationed in Decatur overnight.
The men working the yard assignment Number One were repositioning railcars on the series of tracks directly in front of the Annex. Among the 18-car draft were several boxcars and a series of “cuts”– five jumbo tank cars, loaded with isobutane gas. Typically in the Decatur railroad yard, cuts were allowed to roll freely into each other at slow speeds so the cars would automatically couple.
But that unwritten rule was about to explode and with tragic results.
Isobutane is compressed for transport in tankers as a liquid. Though commonly confused with propane (Decatur newspapers made this mistake.), isobutane is heavier than propane and has a higher boiling point, specifically -.5 degrees Celsius. With such a low boiling point, the liquid in the tanker automatically formed a gaseous cloud as soon as it seeped through the ruptured wall of the car. Twice as heavy as air at normal atmospheric pressure, the isobutane cloud did not rise or move substantially in the light morning breeze. Instead, it hung near the ground in the rail yard, waiting for the fatal spark that set off a massive explosion.
“It looked like a bomb” going off, one local resident told the Decatur Review. Another, Clem Webster, was on his motorcycle on Route 36 at the time of the accident. He describes the scene further: “At first, it seemed like something bright, just like the sun. Then I looked over there and it appeared that the whole town was going up.”
When the gas cloud ignited, a concussive explosion rocked the rail yard and damaged several buildings around the perimeter of the switching area. The exact cause of the spark was indeterminable; even the national Bureau of Surface Transportation Safety failed to identify the source of the spark.
Fortuitously, the timing of the explosion saved countless lives. Most Decatur citizens were at home preparing for a normal Friday and had not reached businesses or schools near the explosion area; Lakeview High School sustained severe damage to a new addition and most of its classrooms.
Less fortunate, however, were the sleeping shift workers in the rail yard Annex. Without warning they were jolted from their beds by the blast and showered with flying shards of glass. The most serious injuries were suffered by those just outside the protective walls of the Annex, as the flash seared clothing and skin from their bodies.
Initial reports from both the Decatur Herald and Decatur Review confirmed two fatalities from the accident and more than 140 people injured, with damages to local infrastructure estimated by then City Manager Jack Loftus as “million after million.” Official tallies from the National Transportation Safety Board several months after the accident reported 7 fatalities, 33 serious injuries, 316 other injured persons and $18 million in property damage.
Blame for the accident went to poor switching communication and improper safety standards among the rail yard employees. Even though switchmen knew and understood the hazardous nature of the tankers’ contents, none had been properly trained or educated about switching techniques that could have prevented the accident.
Investigators determined that the tank cars were allowed to roll freely at a speed three times the normal allowance for coupling, and the effects of letting cars ram together at will on the switchyard’s downslopes had never been fully explained or demonstrated to them. In addition, the chain of events leading up to the explosion was an anomaly hardly anticipated by Norfolk and Western, other railroad companies, or the NTSB. Consequently, no plan of action for preventing this type of accident had ever been established.
One of the few positive outcomes of this horrible accident is that tank cars carrying hazardous materials such as isobutane are properly labeled and may no longer be cut off while in motion; no other car of any type is allowed to freely roll into one of these tankers. The sad part of the revised Department of Transportation ruling is that it took three serious rail yard accidents in 1974 to reach this conclusion and make the necessary changes.
Other changes were made as well. After the accidents, yard masters were required to notify all switching employees of the arrival of tanker cars caring dangerous chemicals. Trainmen were required to be present at car couplings to advise the locomotive operator of the cars’ proximity to the next cut. And all railroads were mandated to implement a safety program in regards to the handling of hazardous materials.
Two other difficult lessons were learned from the Decatur blast. No longer was it considered wise to house overnight employees so near the switching yards. From that point forward, workers were housed in local hotels. At the time of the accident there were no fire hoses or any type of fire-fighting materials available to the switching area. Firefighters found it difficult to get water to the burned areas and two firemen were injured fighting the blaze. Norfolk and Western decided it would behoove them to make those materials available nearby in the future.
The Decatur railroad yard explosion has remained a vivid memory for local residents, many of whom heard the blast as far away as Tuscola (about 30 miles). The blast’s unexpectedness and the extraordinary luck of the town in escaping more serious injury or death are still topics of conversation. If only yard supervisors had paid closer attention to switching operations; if only the men changing the cars had slowed them down; if only the grade on the tracks had been a bit less steep.
But caution and a giant cloud of isobutane were thrown to the wind that fateful July morning. It’s a tragedy that seven men lost their lives before new industry standards could be adopted, but the changes have improved the safety and well-being of railway operations nationwide and, hopefully, made communities across the country safer places to work and live.
Laura Voyles of Decatur wrote this article in 2004 as part of a Millikin University class on state and local history. The story was originally published in Illinois Heritage magazine that fall, on the 30th anniversary of the explosion. It is reprinted with permission from the Illinois State Historical Society.