The derailment of some 53 cars off a 94-car freight train in the North Thompson Valley at Vinsulla, on Monday, July 19, 1971, came very close to destroying that small community in the holocaust that accompanied the wreck.
The summer was unusually hot that year, with the recorded temperature that day at the Kamloops airport being 100.94° degrees fahrenheit.
Just North of Kamloops at approximately 2:30 p.m., 37-year-old Vinsulla rancher, William Matuga, was riding on a tractor stacking hay in his field bordering the train track. When a train carrying four cars loaded with propane, plus a number of cars loaded with elemental sulphur started to pass by, Matuga had no inkling of the momentous events that would unfold within minutes directly in front of him,
Matuga told reporters after the event, “I saw it all. All at once everything blew up. Freight cars were flying through the air scattering debris everywhere…sulphur and sulphur cars were flying everywhere. I saw one of the propane cars smash a power pole, and the sparks ignited the split tanks, resulting in a tremendous explosion.”
He says he was just 300 yards from the accident and that he saw an empty flatcar rear on end and sail over the top of a box car and rip down a 7,200 volt power line. Then sparks flashed from the severed cable and ignited escaping propane from the tank car. When the first propane car went up Matuga said he “ran like hell”.
“I just ran to escape, and I didn’t look back for at least a quarter of a mile, said Matuga, “I’ve never seen anything like it and I hope I never do again.”
When a second car exploded it melted the tires of his tractor and set fire to 10,000 bales of hay that were in a stack.
Cliff Gunderson, who also farmed in the area, was the only other eyewitness to the derailment. “I saw the cars coming. They started to topple, and as they piled, one on top of one another into a twisted pyramid, there was a huge explosion,” told Gunderson, “The flames shot 500 yards high, and spread at least 100 yards across.”
For the train’s engineer, Fraser McLeod, the disaster started just after he notched down his two 3,000 horsepower diesel engines and was moving at a reportedly 20 miles per hour at the head of his southbound freight train when he said he felt his lead engine slowing at around 2:30 p.m.
Fraser told investigators after the wreck that the next thing that happened is the automatic brake came on, and when he looked backward he saw the cars dancing off the tracks. Then the train stopped, and this was immediately followed by a fireball blast just seven cars back from the locomotives as the first tanker car carrying 27,912 gallons of propane exploded. McLeod immediately radioed Kamloops, saying, “We’ve got a bad one”, while a conductor in the rear caboose ran to a farmhouse to telephone Kamloops as well.
Gerry Hill, the brakeman at the time was riding up front, but immediately made the incredibly dangerous decision to run back toward the one exploded and the other intact propane cars and uncouple them. The engineer then pulled the locomotives ahead to safety, taking four cars with him.
Reports say that at approximately 3 p.m., a small hissing sound could be heard, and then what was described by attending CN policeman, Walter Craig, “…a loud bang like a plane breaking the sound barrier” as another propane tanker exploded. “The flames went up 500 feet, and everybody dropped flat, like trained troops.”
A third car was reported with some discrepancy as blowing up at 4:15 p.m., or 5:35 p.m.. It shattered farmhouse windows and ignited gas leaking from a fractured valve cover on a fourth car. Pieces of metal were heard flying overhead and then striking trees and the highway, but fortunately no one was injured.
The blast waves knocked newsmen and officials attending the scene to the ground, and sent others scurrying for cover. The force of the blast pushed a police car from the highway into the ditch, and the heat wave from the blast was so hot it gave those in close proximity “an instant sunburn”.
Three other propane-filled tankers remained on the tracks, and undamaged, and water bombers were called in to drop a sludge mixture in an effort to put out the sulphur fires.
CN crews were quickly on the scene, and worked through the night to lay the beginnings of a temporary track to bypass the wreck, but work stopped by noon on Tuesday due to the danger presented by the burning propane and sulphur cars, and the resulting production of sulphur dioxide gas that was drifting everywhere the wind blew.
A Vancouver explosives expert, Ed Couglin arrived on Tuesday to decide what could be done about the burning propane car. It was reported that the decision was made to use dynamite to blow a four inch hole into the burning propane car to snuff the fire. But first the three adjacent undamaged tankers were dragged to safety, nearby farms evacuated and the highway closed as a precaution for the upcoming blast.
Eye witnesses say that when the blast went off, the burning car took off like a rocket, cleared some wreckage and then disappeared in a writhing fireball like “Dante’s inferno”, it lit up the valley and shook windows 17 miles away in Kamloops.
Crews then quickly moved in to put out numerous spot fires and resume laying down the bypass track.
The valley was still filled with smoke and the toxic sulphur dioxide gas from the burning yellow sulphur. The gas consistently blew in the direction of the onsite officials, reporters and bystanders, causing them to be evacuated several times as the fumes became intolerable.
There was also a danger of molten sulphur making its way into the North Thompson River, but this was halted as work crews dug trenches to halt the “lava-like flow”.
Some who did not heed the danger of breathing in the burning sulphur fumes were most fortunate when the wind changed direction taking the dangerous gases away. One reporter taking photographs at the wreck site wrote, “On one side of us the embankment was burning, and on the other hand molten sulphur was flowing through the ditch. …It was like someone had grabbed us by the throat. Breathing became impossible as we fought our way over the fence and collapsed in the farmers field….the heavy sulphur fumes were in the path of escape. I ran through them, but just could not make it. My lungs felt seared, and I couldn’t inhale. My eyes started watering, and the world seemed to spin around. My legs turned to rubber and I fell.”
Fortunately others saw the reporters’ predicament and helped him away from the fumes, but he remained feeling sick for hours after the ordeal.
Estimates immediately after the wreck were for $2.5 million in damages to the affected area of the North Thompson Valley, mostly caused as a result of the sulphur dioxide gas. The area covered by the gas was estimated at 25 miles long and three miles wide. It destroyed crops, fruit and vegetable harvests, and killed willow, aspen and poplar trees that “just dried up overnight”. Residents say the whole area was bleached and desolate to look at.
Cause of the derailment was speculated by officials at the time to have been the result of a piece of track that had warped from the 100°F heat.
Today, just under 42 years have passed since that fateful afternoon beside William Matuga’s hay field. Matuga still resides there, farms the land, and most likely well-remembers the afternoon of July 19, 1971.
Article complied by North Thompson Star/Journal staff.