Decatur, IL Tank Cars Explode, July 1974

Decatur ILL Bunkhouse ruins.jpg Decatur ILL Freight Car Ruins.jpg Decatur ILL Freight Car Ruins 2.jpg Decatur ILL Damage from Freight blast.jpg


Decatur, Ill. (AP) -- A string of tank cars exploded and burst into flames in a Decatur railroad yard Friday, injuring more than 100 persons, causing extensive damage and widespread evacuation.
Hospitals said 120 persons were treated for injuries
and 15 victims were admitted. There were no deaths reported.
Windows were shattered several blocks away and some houses were damaged. A high school gymnasium under construction collapsed.
The first explosion at 5:03 a.m., in the Norfolk and Western Railway yards on the northeast side, derailed about 100 cars, a railroad spokesman said. Several cars reportedly contained liquid propane. The cause of the explosion was not determined and there was no immediate official damage estimate.
"It shook the house. I never felt anything like it," said Patty Calfee who lives 10 blocks from the yards. "It practically knocked me out of bed," said Audrey Hudson, who lives about 1 1/2 miles from the site. "I thought it was an earthquake."
Flames erupted over the rail yard and continued buring six hours after the first blast. There was mandatory evacuation in a one-mile radius and officials urged persons to stay at least three miles from the center of the blast.
Scores of homes and a trailer park were evacuated;
many banks and large retail stores in the downtown area closed early as a precaution. Six schools conducting summer sessions also closed.
There were no injuries at the school.
Firemen from Decatur and a dozen outlying districts kept flames from reaching boxcars loaded with dynamite and other flammable materials. Decatur, a community of about 100,000 residents, is about 200 miles south of Chicago.
The initial blast struck four liquid propane tank cars, said Payton Winfree, public relations director at the railroad's Roanoke, Va., headquarters. The force of the blast derailed about 100 railroad cars, Winfree said.
A building used as a bunk house for railroad crewmen was almost leveled but a railroad official, Paul Stitl, said, "As far as we know, everyone survived. We feel all the people got out of the dormitory."
Two members of the National Transportation Safety Council were sent to Decatur to conduct a preliminary investigation. A NTSC spokesman said the blast occurred while a switching operation was under way.

Kokomo Tribune Indiana 1974-07-20

Transcriber's Note: In reality seven persons died as a result of this disaster.
BOBBY W. OLINGER, 33, Engineer, Mexico, Ind.
CLYDE RUCKER, 26, Switchman, Mount Zion, Ill.
FRANCIS H. ENSIGN, 44, Decatur, Ill.

If someone could verify the names of the other four casualties I would like to add their names. Please let me know.


Decatur, IL tank car explosion in 1974

I was director of the Illinois 4-H camp at Monticello, IL in July 1974 when the explosion occurred. I was in my cabin bunk that morning when it sounded like a heavy clap of thunder that could be felt within. I looked outside to a cloudless morning and discounted that it was a passing thunderstorm. We received the news several hours later that tank cars in Decatur had exploded.

I was working night shift at

I was working night shift at Eisners in Northgate Mall at the time. It felt like an earthquake. The front windows of the store oscillated back and forth, but they did not break oddly enough.

I can verify that the air

I can verify that the air was filled with ash and black smoke in the air so thick that it resembled the clouds. My family also thought that a plane had crashed. The sound wave traveled over our house at the bottom of the hill on the same side as the explosion and left my neighbors with some damage to their chimmney and blew out windows across the lake next to William st Bridge. The house on the corner of Faires Parkway and 34th street was picked up and twisted and moved off of its foundation and collapsed part of the ceiling in. Pictures were in the Decatur Herald and Review. We were evacuated for most of the day.

sounds like a cover-up by

sounds like a cover-up by the railroad to release responsibility...I knew you would not fess-up to your railroad officials...judgement day is coming sorry if you dont repent...amen...

my family lived about 4

my family lived about 4 blocks south of Lakeview.I was awakened by rumbling,got up,looked out east window,heard huge explosion,eastern sky lit-up.Scared me so bad, I jumped back into bed,pulling covers over my a few seconds or minutes my dad hollered.he looked out north window&it came in on glass in his eye.I went out in my back-yard to see sheet metal that had drifted down,thinking it was part of an airplane.I was 17&just finished junior year@Lakeview. we had to attend the old Stephen Decatur high School@the corner of Franklin&Eldorado St.for my senior year,where the Civic Center is now.I am a carpet-layer,so I go into a lot of houses&homes.I worked in William Sebok's house.He had stacks of pictures&testimony.I saw pics that scared me&I'm fearless.Was told that the railroaders were playing a "game" to see how hard the cars could be slammed together;to see how high they would "jump",&still not derail. one of the cars had a hexane gas leak,which ignited upon sparks from coupling units.

My Dad worked in that yard just on the other side of the bridge.

We had been on vacation that week and the day it happened were driving back home. We could see the smoke from 75 miles away.
Good thing my Dad was on vacation since he usually worked not even a 1/4 mile from there on the other side of Staley's bridge.
The story he was told was that a propane gas tanker over rode it's coupling and punched a hole in the tank. The gas soon filled the yard and one worker could see it on as a layer of fog on the ground.
He no sooner went back in his building and it all went up.
It was also said that depending on the terrain some windows had been broken over 30 miles away.
I know the we drove through the neighborhood just west of there a few weeks later and you could see garages with their doors pushed straight in and basically a cut out in the door where the car was parked inside.
That was some event.
I was a in the 10th grade at the time.


1974 Springfield, Il Train explosion

Another person who was killed in that accident was 23 year old Johnny Poteet. Johnny was a Tennessee native and a new father to his 10 month old baby girl. He loved life, was warm, kindhearted and funny. He was severely burned in the accident but lived six days afterward. A bright light went out the day he died. I was 20 years old and Johnny was my brother.


Per a report from William B. Turner, Fire Inspector dated 8/7/74 the 7 dead were:

Bobbie Olinger 33 275 W. Ninth Peru, IN
Clyde Rucker 26 835 Crestview Mt. Zion, IL
Richard T. Beck 54 320 S. Oakland Decatur IL
David Webster 23 Rm 218 Sheraton Inn Decatur, IL
Francis Ensign Mt. Zion IL
John Poteet 23 648 W. Sawyer Box 221 Decatur or Maroa IL
Darrell Hardy 26 Warrensburg. IL

rail yard explosion in Decatur '74

We live 12 miles away and heard the explosion, my Mom thought it was thunder and sent us outside to roll up the car windows, my Dad was a volunteer fireman from the surroundind area called in right after we got back from rolling up the windows, he was there all day. This may sound a bit graphic, but a couple of the men who died that were standing right next to the tanker cars, were "melted" to the metal and were non recognizable.

Remember it vividly...

I was only 5 and I remember this waking me alarmed, thinking lightning had struck. Shook the whole house and we lived in a in the area between where I-72 and the Mall are now.