Bootte, LA Train And Truck Collision, Dec 1978


Bootte, La. (UPI) -- A tank truck trying to beat a freight train at a railroad crossing Friday was struck broadside by the train, spilling the truck's cargo of 40,000 pounds of ammonia and killing three persons who inhaled its poisonous fumes, state police said.
More than 300 persons had to be evacuated from nearby homes, and 28 persons were hospitalized.
The truck driver, ALEXANDER PRESTON, 40, of New Orleans, was charged with three counts of negligent homicide and one count of disregarding the railway crossing barrier. He suffered minor injuries in the crash.
Gordon Gohmert, who was sitting in his car behind the accident, said safety gates at the crossing were down but one car went around them without incident. The truck followed, Gohmert said.
"I saw that he was going to be hit, and I was afraid that when it did he would hit my car," Gohmert said. "I heard the noise. The next thing I saw was a solid white-like cloud."
After the crash, Gohmert said, he stepped out of his car to escape but jumped back in when he saw the fumes. "I took a deep breath and held it," he said. "I knew I had to get out of there."
The truck, owned by the Hollcer Gas Co. of Port Allen, La., was dragged about 150 feet. It had just picked up a load of almost 40,000 pounds of ammonia. Virtually all the ammonia leaked out, authorities said.
The accident, which occurred about 25 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, drove more than 300 people from their homes.
"The gas was so thick it was extremely difficult to see anything," said Ernest Youngs, the first state trooper to arrive on the scene. "It looked like heavy fog, and it just took your breath away."
Youngs said the three dead people apparently had been inside cars near the railroad crossing when the South Pacific freight train hit the truck carrying the ammonia.
"I saw the victims laying off on the side," Youngs said. "One was in a ditch. They were trying to get away from the fumes and apparently didn't get too far."
The dead were identified as RICHARD K. FRANK, 27, of New Orleans; MICHAEL W. JONES and SUSAN KATZ. Ages and hometowns for JONES and KATZ were unavailable.
State Police said the tank truck was hit about 6:42 a.m. as it traveled on Louisiana 3127, a new highway cut through the sparsely populated region. Liquid ammonia began spilling "all over the ground" immediately and turned to gas.

Daily Herald Chicago Illinois 1978-12-16