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Witnesses Burned When Truck Hits Train

May 25, 1985

EASTLAND, Texas (AP) _ More than 1,000 people were kept away from their homes today by fumes from hazardous chemicals spilled or burned after when a train collided with a tractor-trailer rig, sending out a fireball that injured more than a dozen people, one of them critically.

″I’ve never seen a bomb go off, but I bet that was what it would be like,″ said Tony Petree, who was in his pick-up truck about 50 yards away from the crossing where the Missouri-Pacific freight train slammed into the 18-wheeler Friday morning.

″I guess we were pretty lucky. It’s a miracle (the truck driver) is still alive,″ Petree said from his hospital bed where he was resting with second- degree burns to his back and one arm.

The blast shook buildings, and the fire burned three vacant buildings, singed trees and virtually shut down Eastland, which is 100 miles west of Fort Worth.

Almost one-third of the residents of this town of 3,700 people were evacuated from their homes, officials said, including 15 residents of a nursing home and 17 jail inmates.

Police from surrounding towns and from the Texas Department of Public Safety sent law enforcement officers to guard against looting after Eastland Mayor Charlie Marshall declared the town a disaster area.

A tank of liquid propylene gas was still burning this morning, but A.W. Rees, general manager of the Missouri-Pacific in Dallas, said chances of a further explosion were minimal.

Officials with Western Emergency Services, called in to handle the fire and spill, decided to let the car burn itself out rather than attempt to extinguish it.

Eastland Memorial Hospital administrator Chuck Latham said of the 13 injuried people taken there, six were hospitalizewd in good condition for burns and the others treated and released.

The truck driver, Gaylon E. Nelms of Eastland, was transferred to Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene, where he was in critical condition Friday night with burns and internal injuries, said hospital spokeswoman Jo Thompson.

Twenty-five cars of the train derailed after the truck entered a crossing and struck the second of four locomotives pulling 99 cars from El Paso to Fort Worth, said Rees.

Some of the derailed cars were carrying hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulphuric acid and propylene.

The impact ruptured the fuel tank of the locomotive, causing an explosion and the derailment of the third and fourth locomotives and other cars, Rees said.

The hydrofluoric solution leaking from one car was contained and workers were plugging the pencil-thin crack Friday, but an estimated 1,000 residents were told to wait until today to return to their homes.

Bulldozers were brought in to dam a nearby creek and prevent acid from the train from reaching Lake Leon and contaminating the local water supply.

Residents within a mile of the explosion were evacuated - including 17 jail prisoners were held under guard in the City Hall, officials said.

Evacuated residents stayed Friday night with friends or in a make-shift shelters at schools and churches. The Red Cross was providing bedding and food for the evacuees.

″Our concern was with the safety of those people,″ Police Chief Lyndall Underwood said. ″We didn’t know what was leaking and what was burning.″

″We don’t know when they will be able to return home, hopefully (Saturday),″ Underwood said.

The evacuated area includes all of the downtown area and most of the business district.

The truck, a tanker used to carry salt water to oil rigs, was empty, officials said.

Edwin Stuart, 38, a Union Pacific Railroad employee working near the tracks before the collision, was hospitalized for burns to his back.

″There was a loud noise, explosion, and then the flame mushrooming and coming toward us,″ Stuart said. ″I ran, but the flame caught up with me. It was unbearable. It knocked me down.″

Marcus Meeks, 24, of Fort Worth, who was working with Stuart near the crossing, also was hospitalized.

″We were watching the train go by, and I noticed a truck coming toward the train. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to stop,″ Meeks said. ″It happened so fast. I ran a long ways, but the radiation from the fire ... got me from the neck on down.″

A bystander sprayed his water hose on Meeks until the flames were out and then took him to the hospital.

Update hourly