Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Great Train Blast

by Rocky Macy

It was the second day of August in 1969, a hot and noisy Ozark Saturday night. The next day would mark the two-week anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon. I was twenty-one and had just finished spending almost all of my college summer vacation at ROTC Camp at Ft. Riley, KS. After two months in hot, humid, tick-and-mosquito-infested Kansas, I didn’t need any special reason for partying with my friends. This particular night I had been up late drinking beer, and probably playing Risk, at a cabin on the bluff in Noel, MO, that was being rented for the summer by some of my friends.

(The cabin is still there. It was reportedly built new in 1939 to serve as a temporary home for Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power while they filmed the movie, Jesse James – leaving one to wonder where Randolph Scott slept. But I digress.)

At that time my parents were living on a ridge that overlooked the little town of Noel. (It was called Chicken Plant Hill because the Hudson Foods Chicken Processing Plant sat at its base. The view was as scenic as the smells were toxic. But, again I digress.) I made it home sometime during the wee hours of August 3rd and found my way to bed with every intention of sleeping late that morning. Those plans came to an abrupt end an hour or two later when a blast rocked our house.

My dad, mom, sister (Gail) and I poured out into the living room, groggy from sleep, (and in my case, groggy from sleep and too much beer!) to try to figure out what had happened. The first thing we noticed was that even though it was still dark out, a red glow was coming through the back picture that faced Noel. It was obvious that something had blown up in Noel, something really big, maybe the feared atomic bomb! We also noticed that the force of the blast had kicked our air conditioner out of its wall mounting and into the living room.

My dad started trying to call the telephone operator (if you remember those, you’re old!) to find out what was going on. The lines were busy, but he eventually got through. The operator told him that something had blown up in Noel, but no one knew what was going on.

Dad had a small appliance store on Main Street that held a lot of merchandise, much of which could be carried off by looters if the windows had been blown out, which they obviously had to have been. He and I got in his pick-up and went into town, not knowing what we would find.

There were several people staggering up and down Main Street and a few emergency vehicles were beginning to circulate by the time we got to his store. We learned immediately that a train boxcar had blown up, and people were worried that the large propane storage tanks that were located in town next to the railroad tracks would blow.

The store windows had been blown out, as had most of the windows in town. Dad and I worked at getting the glass swept up. He got involved in helping the other merchants with getting things organized around town, and I stayed at the store to watch the premises and keep picking up glass and clearing and cleaning.

As dawn arrived we could see the awful devastation that had visited our small town. It was complete chaos of glittering glass shards, twisted pieces of iron that had recently been railroad track, busted homes and buildings, and rumors of dismemberment and death.

Sulphur Street runs parallel to the Kansas City Southern train tracks in Noel, beginning at Main Street and ending four or five blocks south at the Noel School. Growing up in the Christmas City, I had walked those several blocks more times than I could tally. I knew the people in every house, all of their kids, and most of their pets.

It was Sulphur Street that suffered the brunt off the train blast. The Catholic Church sat up next to the tracks midway down Sulphur Street, at approximately the location of the blast. That church was so thoroughly destroyed that the parishioners were forced to go seeking other accommodations for several months. The Episcopals, whose church was at the corner of Main and Sulphur, had sustained far less damage, and they opened their doors and their hearts to the homeless Catholics.

There was only one immediate death from the blast, a result of two fortunate circumstances. First, the blast happened late at night when there were substantially fewer people in town than would have been present during daylight business hours. Second, there as a small warning blast several minutes before the one that did so much damage, and many were able to get to their cars and drive away from the center of town.

Roxie Miller, a beautician who lived in an upstairs apartment on Sulphur Street, heard the first blast and ran for her car. When she got to her car, she realized that she had left her purse behind. She ran back into the house and had made it to the top of the stairs when the big blast hit. The forty-something, single woman had her throat cut with a piece of flying glass and became the blast's first fatality. (My mother, also a beautician, worked with Roxie at Carol Kerry’s Beauty Shop in Noel.)

There was a Mr. Green living in Noel at the time of the blast, one of those local characters that often make themselves memorable. Mr. Green used to busy himself by telling people that the end of time was near. He shared the date of the impending doom with anyone who would listen. I don't remember this person, but my dad recently told me about him. Although his date for the end of the world has been lost to history, Mr. Green's end came on the afternoon following the blast when he keeled over dead following a heart attack that was thought to have been a result of all of the excitement generated by the exploding boxcar.

Lottie Bentley and her husband Virgil, an older couple, were asleep in bed at their home a block or so behind Sulphur Street when the major blast occurred. A two-thousand train wheel came crashing through their roof and landed on the bed crushing Lottie’s legs.

Mertie Harmon, a good friend and the mother of one of my classmates, lived in the biggest house on Main Street, just a block or so from Sulphur Street. She had heard the first blast, and was standing at her front door looking out the screen door when the second blast hit. She said that she could see the glass on the screen door spidering with fractures and just had time to cover her face with her hands before it all flew in on her. She was soon in her car driving away from town.

All of the people in town the following morning had one thing on their minds – hunger. Kilmer’s Grocery was located across the street from my dad’s store, but it had been pummeled with flying fragments of glass, rendering much of the store's contents inedible. Before the morning was very old, however, two agencies put up tables with doughnuts and sandwiches, and their presence taught me a lesson about charity that I have never forgotten. The American Red Cross aided the dazed citizens of Noel by selling them food. Most people hadn’t thought to grab cash as they dashed into town to assist with rescue and clean-up. The Salvation Army also set up a stand where they gave away sandwiches. Those fine folks were literally our “salvation!”

(Many years later I was in a social work class at the University of Missouri, and one of our class assignments was to do a follow-up of a river community – Hartsburg , MO – that had been devastated by flooding a few years earlier – the horrible floods of 1993. As my research partners and I talked to residents about what they had encountered during that disaster, many mentioned how grateful they had been to the charity provided by the Salvation Army, and spoke with scorn about the Red Cross selling their services. Today when a disaster occurs, such as Hurricane Katrina, I donate according to the life lessons that I have learned.)

But, back to Noel on August 3rd, 1969:

By early afternoon another crisis was looming. Police were going door-to-door telling people that the gas company was preparing to drill into the large propane tanks by the tracks to bleed off the pressure that they felt was building. We were being ordered to evacuate. Most of the merchants did not want to leave their wares unprotected. Some had managed to board up a few windows, but there was still basically little security for the town’s personal property. My dad gathered up his credit book and other important papers and prepared to leave, but we ended up staying until the town’s warning siren started going off. We drove out of town for a little while until we heard that an all clear had been given.

The national guard arrived that afternoon and tried to keep everyone out of town, but somehow my dad managed to get us back in. I volunteered to sleep in the store that night. We set up an army cot behind a row of washers and dryers. With the national guard patrolling the streets all night, things should be fairly secure, but we didn't want to take any unnecessary risk. I didn’t manage to sleep much because the young soldiers kept walking by and shining their flashlights around the store interior. I stayed concealed until I heard one say, “Hey. Mike, there’s one of them little radios like you want.” At that point I stood and cleared my throat. “There’s somebody in there,” I heard him say. I waved, and they moved on down the street – without the little radio.

As the days passed we learned that a boxcar full of fertilizer had exploded when the brakes on the boxcar caught fire as the train was braking coming into Noel. Apparently the night man at the Noel Train Station had radioed the engineer and told him about the fire. Instead of pulling the boxcar safely out of town, the engineer stopped where he was at to address the issue.

The train’s insurer, Aetna Casualty, was in town quickly and spent several weeks writing checks. Most people were in a hurry to settle, anxious to rebuild and get on with their lives, but a few held out for more. Famed attorney, Melvin Belli, came to Noel to encourage the greedy to sue. Aetna paid out over $2 million in claims, enough to rebuild the town as it was then several times over. Some of the greedier people managed to do a little better, and some did not.

My dad got a fair settlement for the damage to his store and merchandise. We also got a small claim for damage to our house air-conditioner. I drove a little red Chevy Corvair at the time that was parked in our garage. An old wooden wagon wheel fell over on it at the time of the blast causing a big dent in the passenger door. I was able to parlay that into a few hundred dollars.

We lost telephone service for most of the next few days, but my mother was able to contact her family in Newton County and let them know that we were all alright. The next day my aunt and uncle, Fred and Ruth Marble, read about the blast on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. They weren’t able to call us, but they did reach my grandad who told them that we were okay.

And a couple of weeks later I was back at Southwest Missouri State with stories to share that weren't all about the rigors of ROTC summer camp.

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