DECATUR — The events of July 19, 1974, left a mark on Decatur that is still felt 40 years later.
A gas explosion in the Norfolk & Western rail yard had Decatur leading the national news and remains one of the most devastating events in the city's history. Norfolk & Western is now Norfolk Southern Corp.
The explosion killed seven railroad workers. It injured more than 140 people, destroyed nearly 80 houses and damaged nearly 600 other buildings in a one-square mile area. The shock wave from the blast was felt 40 miles away in Pesotum. Property damage was in excess of $14 million, about $65.5 million in today's dollars.
Following the blast, memories remained vivid for those who lived through the disaster.
“I remember being awakened by the tremendous sound of the explosion around 5 a.m., then hearing breaking glass from our front door,” said James Guinnee, who was 7 at the time and whose family lived on Harrison Avenue on Decatur's east side. “Our house, like many others, was actually knocked off its foundation by the force of the explosion.”
About 30 minutes after the blast, the Decatur Police Department began ordering residents to evacuate the area due to the concern of additional explosions, which never occurred. Guinnee said he was on the front porch with his dad about 7 a.m., sweeping up glass when a patrol car came by with the evacuation order.
Decatur historian Bob Sampson later described the disaster as one of the worst in the city's history.
“We've had a lot of major fires downtown, but nothing with the economic impact of the rail yard explosion,” Sampson said. “There were a lot of big stories in Decatur's past, but nothing comes close to matching that blast.”
The explosion happened when a jumbo tank car carrying isobutane gas rolled down a track too rapidly during switching operations and slammed into an empty boxcar, the coupler of which rode up over the tank car's coupler and punctured the tanker.
Escaping gas created a vapor cloud in the yard. The gas escaped and vaporized for eight to 10 minutes before it exploded. Investigators later concluded that whatever created the spark that ignited the cloud of gas will never be known.
The explosion made intense work for firefighters.
“I remember the enormous cloud of smoke from the firefighting efforts that hung over the city for much of the day — that alone made a lasting impression,” Guinnee said. “I also remember the National Guard troops who were brought in to patrol the streets of the neighborhoods that were evacuated. These troops stayed on patrol for several weeks that summer to prevent looting of damaged property.”
In addition to the National Guard troops, other emergency responders worked tirelessly to take control of the situation. Fire throughout the rail yard started by the blast left rail cars and buildings burning throughout the day and smoldering into the night. Decatur firefighters called to duty early in the day remained on the job for 36 hours. Police officers and state troopers worked 12-hour shifts for several days after the explosion.
Many of those who were displaced from their homes gathered in Fairview Park. Guinnee's family was among those able to return home about 4 p.m., he said.
The damaged condition of more than 560 houses meant many of their occupants had to find temporary shelter until repairs could be made. The Macon County Chapter of the American Red Cross initially set up an emergency medical station at Brush College Park No. 2. The station was moved to Nelson Park as concern for another explosion remained.
Guinnee was among those watching the national news that evening on ABC.
“I can still see Harry Reasoner opening the news broadcast with that story — it was that important in terms of national impact,” Guinnee said.
Rail traffic through the yard was disrupted for nearly a week before operations returned to near normal. During that period, the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad brought in extra equipment to help shippers move stalled freight.
Retired Decatur Fire Chief Donald Minton later said he thought of the explosion when he heard trains in the rail yard.
“A lot of people hear that and don't pay any attention,” Minton said. “But when I hear that, I think about the explosion.”
Minton had been head of the Decatur Fire Department less than three months when the explosion occurred. It was just one of several events in 1974 that led it to be described as a year of disasters. The city also endured a major tornado, a minor earthquake and a spring flood.
Guinnee, who now works as a management consultant and lives in New York City, still remembers the events of July 19, 1974, each year when the anniversary comes around. It was something initially others tried to push out of their memories, although forgetting was difficult, he said.
Guinnee entered second grade that August.
“On the first day of school, the children exchanged stories of what happened that day,” Guinnee said. “Our teachers related that they had been advised by school administrators not to bring up the events, for fear of upsetting students.”
The disaster was the second, and worst, of three nearly identical explosions at U.S. rail yards that year. The explosions pushed federal authorities to immediately adopt more stringent safety standards for American railroads. Norfolk & Western changed its car-switching procedures so cars would no longer roll freely through its yards.
The railroad company paid more than $5 million in damages for deaths and injuries caused by the explosion. A circuit court found the railroad was liable for the blast.