The Twister & the Train

The rash of tornadoes that hit the Midwest and meandered through Tennessee and Kentucky the other day/night doing extensive damage and costing some 55 lives in four states reminds me of another life and times and date certain when the creator of this corner was a locomotive engineer on the old Southern Railway System, now part of the huge Norfolk Southern Line.

It was a harrowing experience on April 3, 1974. At the throttle of lead-engine 3003 on that beautiful, unseasonably warm day, I had had one of those great runs the dispatchers rarely handed out, on Train 172 at about a mile-and-a-quarter long. Iíd left Oakdale, Tenn., about 2:30 p.m. and was slowing on the steep grade approaching Moreland, Ky., some 125 miles and three hours later, when things came unglued.

Positioned on the cabís east side, I didnít see the funnel cloud brakeman Allen Knight saw when he looked back through the west-side window. We knew it was windy and the weather was threatening, but on the185-ton locomotive hadnít felt anything unusualÖuntil the utility pole at the main Moreland crossing snapped and came crashing down in front of the engine, high-voltage wires and all, and fire flew out from under the wheels.

Fearing electrocution, I jumped up, wanting to get all of me, including my feet, on the seat cushion but couldnít because the brakes would go into emergency if I took my foot off the ďdead manís pedalĒ (made of metal and designed for emergency brake-application if not depressed). Little blue, lead-thin lines crackled around the 600-volt cabinets only a few feet from our seats, and Allen yelled at me not to touch anything. Unknown to us, the 23-ton caboose was shaking violently and conductor George "Billy" Boswell and flagman Mike Richardson were simply "hoping for the best," with nowhere to go. The tornado passed through the center of the train.

It was vital to get the train over the crossing since blocking it would make practically impossible the movement of emergency vehicles from Danville/Junction City to the south-end of the county. All brakes went into emergency (indicating a break in the train-line or the train itself) soon after the engines cleared the crossing, however, and we came to a grinding halt, the 185-ton engine vibrating as if some gigantic hand were shaking it.

Nine of the ten mobile homes on a ridge on the west side disappeared. Another one a few yards away on the east side imploded, and I radioed the dispatcher in Somerset, Ky., that it looked as if Moreland was blowing away. The black-angus cattle in the field on the west side were rolling end over end down the fence-row or twirling around in the middle of the pasture, a funny, puzzled look on their faces. The steeple blew off the church over by Highway 127, which paralleled the tracks. Trees were going down and utility poles snapping everywhere.

When the wind died down a bit, Allen and I hit the ground to see if anyone was in the flattened trailer nearby and survey the situation. The man from the trailer said his family was safe in the adjacent house but bewailed the fact that his 23 guns had disappeared. He later found most of them. Sitting against the engineís fuel tank on the west side was a man who was obviously shaken, dazed and hurting. He said he was standing in his yard a few hundred feet down the track, but in an instant simply landed by or against the train. We helped him home, where his wife was plenty scared, and found out later that he had a severe injury.

Walking south down the tracks, we found pieces of the blown-away trailers and downed trees sandwiched between the cars in the train. Our worst fears were confirmed when we discovered the crossing completely blocked by two overturned boxcars. An automobile was on its side in the yard adjacent to the crossing.

We continued down the tracks, climbing over trees, and met Billy and Mike, who looked as if they had seen ghosts. They told us that cars weighing more than 50 tons empty had been lifted off their wheels intermittently throughout the train and set down beside the tracks or stacked on each other. They had had to claw their way over, under and around trees and other debris. The track was hardly damaged, unbelievable since derailments usually cause severe damage as wheels snap rails and chew up ballast and crossties.

After passing through the train, the twister continued northeast and caused one death locally, as well as considerable damage. As things calmed down it became deathly still, as if nothing had ever happened, and then the rains came. We were told to stay there until well after dark, but finally instructed to proceed with the few cars we could still pull the twelve miles to Danville, home and home terminal. The storm accompanying the tornado had knocked out all power, and there didnít seem to be a light in the whole town of 12,000. There were no rail-yard employees on duty, no lights, and the usually bustling installation was like a ghost-town.

If the tornado itself had passed through either end of the train, one can only guess what might have happened. Iíve seen worse storms at sea, but could not have imagined anything on land like that tornado if I hadnít experienced it, up close and personal.