Hurricanes and tornadoes are much in the news these days, reminding me of the harrowing experiences of April 3, 1974. At the throttle of engine 3003, backed up by fellow EMD-SDs 3122 and 6325 on that beautiful, unseasonably warm day, I had had one of those great runs the dispatchers hand out occasionally, on Train 172 at about a mile-and-a-quarter in length. I'd left Oakdale, Tenn., at something like 2:30 p.m. and was slowing on the steep grade approaching Moreland, Ky. (about 125 miles and three hours later) when things came unglued.
Positioned on the east side of the cab, I didn't see the funnel cloud my brakeman saw when he looked back through the west-side window. We knew it was windy and the weather was threatening, but on the stable, 185-ton locomotive hadn't felt anything unusual…until the utility pole at the main Moreland crossing snapped and came crashing down in front of the engine, high-voltage wires and all, at which time fire flew out from under the wheels and, fearing electrocution, I jumped up, wanting to get all of me, including my feet, on the seat cushion, but couldn't because the brakes would go into emergency if I took my foot off the "dead man's pedal" (made of metal). Little blue, lead-thin lines crackled around the 600-volt cabinets only a few feet from our seats, and my brakeman yelled at me not to touch anything. When the wires were all severed, the electrical threat was gone. Unknown to us, the 23-ton caboose was shaking violently and the conductor and flagman were simply "hoping for the best," with nowhere to go. The tornado passed through the center of the train.
We were still moving and it was vital to get the train over the crossing, since blocking it would make it practically impossible to get emergency vehicles from their locations to the south-end of the county. The brakes went into emergency soon after the engines cleared the crossing, however, and we came to a grinding halt, the engine now vibrating as if some gigantic hand were shaking it.
Nine of the ten mobile homes on a ridge on the west side disappeared. Another 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. I'll never forget the strange, 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 all over the place. When the wind died down a bit, the brakeman and I decided to get down, see if anyone was in the flattened trailer, 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.
Sitting against the engine's 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 serious injury. We started walking south along the track down the hill. Between the cars, pieces of the trailers that had blown away were mixed with blown-down trees. Our worst fears were realized 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 (I was supposed to stay on the engine), and met the conductor and flagman, who looked as if they had seen ghosts. They told us that cars weighing more than 50 tons empty had been lifted off their trucks intermittently throughout the train and set down off 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 middle of the train, the twister continued northeast and caused one death, 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, then, finally instructed to proceed the twelve or so miles to Danville, my home terminal. The storm accompanying the tornado had knocked out all power, and there was not one single light in the whole town. There was not one rail-yard employee on duty, and the usually bustling yard was like a ghost-town.
If the eye of the tornado had passed through either end of the train, one can only guess what might have happened. I've seen worse storms at sea, but could not have imagined anything on land like that tornado if I hadn't experienced it.