At about 6:00 pm, on November 9, 1977, L&N freight train no. 407 derailed at Gull point near Pensacola, Florida. Among the 35 cars that tumbled off the track that evening were 2 containing anhydrous ammonia. The ammonia released into the air resulted in the death of 2 people, the injury of 46, and the evacuation of over 1,000.
That was 40 years ago today. I was 16 years old. This was my first “bug-out”.
It was already dark that Wednesday night when the word came down, over radio and all three of the television channels. Deputies drove the main roads, calling over their loudspeakers for people to evacuate. But probably the most effective method of spreading the word was over the telephone. Friends and family from “up in town” called to warn us of the coming ammonia gas cloud.
That was all anybody really knew at the time. That, and that we had to go.
My father, coincidentally a freight conductor for a totally different railroad, was off on a two-day switcher. That left only my mother and myself at home to respond to the evacuation order. To “bug-out”.
While “bug-out” was not a commonly heard term back then, it wasn’t completely unknown. A year earlier the very popular tv show, MASH, had aired an episode by that very name. On the show the enemy was attacking and the hospital camp had to be relocated, had to “bug-out”. Confusion, disorganization and silliness ensued.
My mother and I were living up to spirit, if not the humor, of that MASH episode. I don’t remember much hemming and hawing. No packing of the car or gathering of valuables. I don’t think I even took extra clothes. We just locked the door and roared away, leaving bewildered pets in the fenced yard.
The radio reports said an elementary school in town would be open for evacuees. We went there, but when my mom saw the army cots set up on the gym floor she decided to take up my aunt on her kind offer of a spare room. I wanted to stay at the school however. To be honest it seemed like a real adventure to me at the time, once we were out of danger. So I begged and pleaded and finally got her to leave me there with all the other evacuees.
What a great night for a 16 year old! Friends from school who also lived in the evacuation zone were there. The cafeteria was open with food and board games all night long. The town bakery even brought over hot donuts. At the time I neither understood or cared about the cause of this strange adventure. Because that was all it was to me.
The next day, however, it was over. The ammonia cloud, which at one point was dense enough to show up on radar, had evaporated. It was safe to go home again.
Home was pretty much as we had left it, except for 10 or 15 dead birds littered across our property. That, and one of our cats that had disappeared. Did she succumb to the gas and crawl off somewhere to die? Did she evacuate, like we did, and forget her way back? We never saw her again.
The dogs and remaining cats were fine though, other than being hungry. And everything else was as we had left it.
Life got back to normal for most folks. But not everyone. One man who lived near where the derailment happened was already dead. His wife would last 2 months before dying from lung damage. 8 others would spend time hospitalized, including my girlfriend’s father. A highway patrolman, he had manned a checkpoint thru the worst of the event. He would have to take breathing treatments for years after that and retire early.
This train derailment happened out of the blue, some 8 miles from my house. There was no weather watch leading up to it.
No drumbeats of war.
No terrorist threat.
It was an accident that literally could happen anywhere.
We all live near highways and railways that are daily used to transport hazardous materials. What is amazing…and a credit to safety systems in place…is that it doesn’t happen more often. And I expect those safeguards are better today than they were 40 years ago.
By the time we were alerted to this threat 40 years ago, there was no time to prepare. We, and a thousand others, left our homes, many of us with just the clothes we were wearing. Bug-out bags were not a commonplace thing back then. And honestly, I don’t recall we gave any thought to such a thing after this happened. But perhaps this experience when I was 16 did shape my interest in preparedness now.
What would be different today, if this incident were to happen again?
We would be more knowledgeable, better trained and prepared. We would be able to fall back on plans already in place for pets and valuables. Each family member would be able to take a prepared backpack with the necessities for a day or two away from home. “Bug-out” is something we have thought about. Thought through. We would be more prepared. and sometimes that is really all you can do.
Guest post written by:
You can follow the author on his youtube channel, renaissancemarinetv, devoted to preparedness, homesteading and self-sufficiency.