Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Roseville Train Explosions - HappyUP!!!

Today marks 37 years since a munitions train - came down from over the Sierras carrying it's load of 500 pound bombs. It's destination was a shipping yard in the Bay Area. For a reason that has never been determined, the train caught on fire as it sat in the Antelope end of the Roseville switching yard.

My house was in Antelope - we lived 1/4 mile away from Ground Zero.

It was 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning - I was 13 and, being a relatively new teenager, was taking in that teenage habit of sleeping in. My mom had been up for hours cleaning the house. It was mom's Saturday ritual...housework. If, by chance, we had somewhere to be on Saturday, it just meant she got up earlier or started in on the housework Friday night.

During the preceding hour and a half - my dad kept noticing some sounds. "If I was back in WW2, I would swear those were bombs. Perhaps someone is blasting tree stumps," he told my mom.

But at 8:30, it wasn't a 500 lb bomb - by this time, the fire had reached a propane tanker that was a part of this train.

I awoke that morning to the sound - of every item in the house being thrown from it's cabinets, windows imploding with such force that the shards of glass imbedded in the plaster (not sheetrock) walls across the room, and my father yelling, "everyone get out of the house."

My bedroom had a door to the outside - and I quickly scurried out and around to our front yard in time to see a huge fireball and mushroom cloud. "What is happening?" was the only thing going through my mind. I thought that, perhaps, a plane had crashed nearby. It was only recently that a plane had crashed tragically into an ice cream parlor in nearby Sacramento so that seemed to make sense. The possibility of a nuclear bomb incident was also racing through my adolescent brain.

There wasn't much time to think - my parents grabbed me and my brother and we got into the car. We were horrified at the traffic jam of people that were trying to drive toward the blast. We just wanted to go the other way and get out. No one had to tell us to evacuate.

My mom was a bookkeeper at the Roseville Press Tribune - she had a key to the office so that was the logical place to go. It was a newspaper so it also served as a place to get information. Little did we know how bad the information would be.....and how long we would have to wait to find out what all of this meant to our future.

Reporters fed us information - from people that had been flying over the scene. "The house with big olive orchard has burned to the ground,"....."no, your house is standing,"....."no, it has been flattened,".....conflicting reports causing hope and heartbreak at every turn.

The Tribune's owner-editor, Carmella Martin, - was in Los Angeles that weekend. The train explosions had made national news. It had to be frustrating for her as a newsperson to be so far away from one of the biggest stories that her paper would ever cover. She was so gracious and insisted on us staying in her home that Saturday evening while she was away.

The railroad had set up a special claims office - and my parents may have actually been able to get some immediate emergency money the day of the blast. If it wasn't that day, it was very fast. There were no ATM's back then. Banks were not open either. We were so relieved to have access to funds.

The bombs subsided by that evening - and the National Guard was called in to secure the area against looters. It was made clear to the public that anyone found inside the perimeter would be shot. I remember hearing that and, not knowing what looting was at the time, realized this was very serious business.

By Sunday, Carmella had gotten back home - and, as dusk started to settle that evening, she piled in the car with us to see if we could get in to see our home, or what was left of it, with us. We drove down PFE, made the left on to North Antelope, and were on the straightaway that finished at the site of the explosion. We went up the little hill that crested about 300 yards from our house. We were stopped by the National Guard.

"Sorry, this is as far as anyone goes" - was the official word from the heavily armed Guardsman. If it was just us, I think we would have turned around and gone home. I will never forget Carmella's pleas with the soldiers....

"These people only live a couple hundred yards up the street. They don't know whether they have a house or not. Please, let us go check" - the guard thought about it and agreed to let us pass. But not before he added, "the main street has been swept and cleared of Tritonol. We have done nothing in people's driveways."

Tritonol was the plastic explosive - used in the detonators of the bombs. We drove on very slowly. I still remember, as we turned off the main street into our driveway, cringing and plugging my ears expecting us to drive over a piece of explosive.

There it was - our old, ramshackle house.....beaten up.....all windows shattered....debris scattered amongst the driveway......but still standing. We had left a car in the driveway and a shock absorbing spring from one of the railcars had flown the full 1/4 mile and landed squarely on the hood of that Toyota. I told my dad what a great souvenir that was. He said, "oh yes..go ahead....go over there and pick it up." He already knew what I was to find out. I couldn't even move it as it weighed so much.

Though standing - our home would be condemned as being beyond repair. The concussion of the blast had shattered every rafter in the home. Most of our things were now smoke damaged. Our house was the first one left standing between us and the blast. The other homes between ours and the explosions had been either flattened or burned.

Many people took the Southern Pacific railroad to court - trying to collect for damages to old cars, chicken coupes, etc. I'm not sure that they ever got the restitution they were looking for. I know they spent years in court. My parents were thrilled to receive the check they got for the damages. I believe they were paid in full within just a couple of weeks of the accident. It was for more than we could have sold the house and 10 acres on before the blast...and we got to keep the property. They were grateful and had nothing but praise for how the railroad had handled our case.

Miraculously - no one was killed in this incident. If the train had been parked in the actual town of Roseville rather than where it was more rural in Antelope, I doubt that I would be able to say that same thing.

We immediately moved into Roseville - and my parents bought the house that I grew up in....and subsequently purchased from my dad....and am sitting in as I write this. I was about to start high school so this meant I would not be riding any buses from out in the country. I could now walk to school and easily participate in social events related to high school. It also put me a half a mile away from the golf course where I would end up spending a vast amount of my time. I made new friends in the neighborhood...friends that I still have to this day.

This one, single freakish event - was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me...and I have been a pretty lucky guy. I realized just how fortunate this situation was almost immediately. My parents may have helped me with that but it didn't take me long to realize what a great break we had caught. It definitely worked for me.

So....on this April with most April 28ths that have occurred since then - I say a HappyUP!!! to good fortune, my late parents, and to life. It's amazing how things work out.


Anonymous said...

Amazing story, thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

So, from what I gather from your story, ground zero was just north of where Home Depot stands now?

Brian Hill said...

I lived just down the tracks from there in north highlands and could see the bombs going off in my front yard. Quite a deal for an 8 yr old kid and his buddies that played army man all the time. What trip. good story.