Stark raving mad, certifiable—and no whimpering

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor

Conrail’s Oak Island Yard in Newark, N.J., blew up at 12:14 AM on Jan. 7, 1983, some 35 years ago.

Well, not exactly. The yard didn’t blow up. Texaco’s tank farm across from the east end of the yard blew up—in particular, a gasoline storage tank being filled to its two-million-gallon capacity overflowed, and the vapor from 150,000 overflow gallons exploded, setting off the storage tank.

A little before 12:14 AM, the locomotive engineer on a Selkirk, N.Y.-bound train in the departure yard called the hump on the radio and reported gasoline leaking from the tanks down at the east end of the yard. At first, I thought he was referring to some tank cars at the east end, and I was perplexed since gasoline was never shipped to Oak Island by rail. Then I realized he meant Texaco’s tank farm.

The engineer said he was going to shut down his locomotives (a set of four GP40s). I told him to get his crew off the train and go over to the east end yard office.

The assistant division superintendent was on the property that night, as we were dealing with a derailment on the River Line. I called him at the movement office in Elizabethport, N.J.

“Can you go down there and check it out?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. He hung up and called the car foreman at the east end to make the same request of him.

I walked over to the radio rack to get a portable radio to take with me to the east end when the yardmaster said, “There it goes.”

I thought he was screwing around and I turned to tell him to cut it out, but he wasn’t there. He was gone, and so was the retarder operator. I looked east into the classification yard. I saw this tidal wave of flame rushing toward the hump tower.

I remember thinking how strange it was that I couldn’t hear anything, as if all the air had been sucked out of the area and sound couldn’t transit the vacuum.

And I also looked at the clock, because hump trainmasters always look at the clock, because everything at the hump is timed, and I particularly wanted to know what time it was when I died.

The hump building had three levels and we—the yardmaster, the retarder operator and the trainmaster—were located on the top level. Our office had floor-to-ceiling glass windows on three sides, north, east and west. On the east and west sides, the windows could pivot 360 degrees, allowing access to the “decks” on either side so that the trainmaster could stand outside and get a better view of something, or just scream at a crew without using the radio.

I watched the wave of fire for maybe half a second before fear overtook fascination and I headed for the exit stairs.

I don’t remember the blast. I remember feeling the blast. I remember being in the stairwell on the third floor and then I remember being on the ground floor, covered in plaster dust. I don’t remember anything in between, but I was upright, in line, radio in hand and ready to run.

Run I did, like a jet, west on the access road toward Wilson Avenue. As I ran I tried calling the block operators at Upper Bay Tower on the east end and NK Tower on the west end to tell them to hold all trains clear of the yard.

I looked to my left and I saw one of the PM yard transfers, PN32, pulling out of Doremus Avenue Yard, across from the hump, at about 30 mph.

“Is that PN32 I see pulling around the wye at 20 miles per hour more than the authorized speed?”

“Is that Dave Schanoes I see passing me at 25 miles per hour more than the authorized speed?” I was running too hard to laugh.

The silence stuck with me. I didn’t then and don’t now recall actually hearing the explosion. I saw the flames. I still see the flames. I felt the heat, and on days like today (Jan. 18, 2018) I wish I could still feel the heat.

But silence was the overwhelming sensation.

Then I realized I wasn’t hearing what I most expected to hear—sirens.

Where were the fire trucks? I continued west toward Wilson Avenue and came upon the fire trucks—silent, stopped, blocked, behind a swarm of automobiles parked across the access road, their drivers and passengers sitting on the hoods of the cars watching the flames from the gasoline storage tanks, as if this were July 4th entertainment, not a January 7th catastrophe.

I knew we had crews at the east end of the yard. I knew we had a yardmaster at the east end. I knew we had car inspectors at the east end. And I knew 30% of our business was tank cars of hazardous materials.

I was worried. I climbed up and opened the cab door of the first fire truck in the queue.

“Do you know where you going? “ I asked the driver, who looked at my plaster-dust-covered self like I was a mime.

“Not really,” he said.

“I’m the trainmaster, and I can get you there.”

I closed the door. “Let’s go,” I said.

“We can’t,” he said. “We’re blocked.”

“Look,” I said. “That yard right now has about 300 tank cars in it filled with the most toxic substances known to man. If those cars start cooking off, these people won’t have to worry about getting out of the way of a fire truck.”

With that he hit the sirens on his truck at full volume and began edging his truck gently, but insistently, forward, all the while hitting the horns. Some cars moved. Some cars he moved.

He held up a mask connected to an air tank. “We gonna need these?”

“If we do,” I said, “we’re too late and it’s too late.”

He threw the mask behind him and hit the gas hard.

“There are speed bumps ahead,” I warned him.

“In that case,” he said, “you better hold on tight.”

And I did, hold on tightly, that is.

The east end yard office, a concrete block building, had been blown off its foundations and now sat askew from its previous east-west alignment, looking to me like a giant compass needle that some jokester had placed a big-ass magnet next to, pulling it 30 degrees east of true north.

All the windows were blown in, and all three doors to the structure were off their hinges, scattered among the debris field that now occupied the east end of the yard.

The Selkirk road crew had been inside the building when the explosion occurred and had received multiple cuts from the flying glass, but none, fortunately, to the eyes. The fire department ambulance crew whisked them away before I could even talk to them.

Nothing was on fire in the yard itself, not even the papers blown about by the force of the explosion, but the fire from the gasoline tank simultaneously lit up and darkened the night sky, with a curtain of orange flame and plumes of black smoke.

The car foremen were sitting on the hoods of their cars outside the yard office, dazed. They were probably 50 feet from the berm that surrounded the tank farm when they saw the first flame. They immediately hurled themselves to the ground, crawling under one of the freight cars, which shielded them from the flame, if not the shock. From there, they watched sheet after sheet of flame ride over the tops of the car. They were unhurt, more or less, except for their eardrums, which had been blown out … and the images they would always carry of the explosion and just how close they came to being vaporized.

The lone yard crew that worked from the east end of the yard was okay, having been working on tracks furthest away from the tank farm, and protected by the picket fences of freight cars between them and the blast.

The fire chief surveyed the scene and focused on a tall, thin cylindrical tank standing next to the flaming gasoline tank. “Kerosene,” he said. “Jet fuel. Can’t let that cook off.” He radioed the equipment that was now positioned on the Doremus Avenue bridge that passed over the east end of the yard and directed them to “keep that goddamn jet fuel cool.” A water cannon was already focused on the cylinder. Two more targeted it after the radio communication.

“Is everyone who was here accounted for?” he asked me. I checked with the car foremen. All their inspectors were accounted for. The road crew was accounted for. So was the yard crew. There was no yardmaster scheduled to work third trick.

“All accounted for,” I told him.

“Not much we can do here,” he said. “We’ll leave one truck hooked up here, in case the gasoline starts to overflow the berm, but I doubt that. The rest we’ll move out.”

The Selkirk train’s locomotives took the hardest blow, with their engine blocks being blown off their mounts and in one case, being blown completely out of the locomotive body. That massive unit was on the ground, looking like something uncovered by an archeological dig that had discovered evidence of a visit from an interplanetary space expedition.

We lost four GP40 locomotives to the explosion—truly great locomotives, 3,000 hp, four-axle beauties. I heard a rumor that people in the Blue Room in Philadelphia broke down in tears when they heard the news.

The fire trucks, all but one, did their slow three-point pirouettes and pulled out. I decided to walk the east end of the yard with pencil and paper, noting the condition of each track; the number of cars damaged and their reporting marks; securing the damaged cars; and where possible, butting the knuckles between the damaged cars and the OKs, so we could pull the OKs back over the hump and out of the class yard.

My radio crackled. It was the assistant superintendent calling me from the top of the hump. I told him where I was and what I was doing and that I’d be back at the hump in about 40 minutes with some information.

It was after 2:30 AM when I did get back to the hump. The assistant superintendent was there, the master mechanic was there, the division road foreman was there, his staff was there, six trainmasters were there, the yardmaster was there, the retarder operator was there, and my closest colleague, the AM hump trainmaster was there. Staffed like midnights had never been before, there was only one thing to do: put everyone to work.

I took the yardmaster’s track-by-track yard sheet and laid out the conditions at the east end. W decided to clear the cars out of the departure yard, directly adjacent to the tank farm. We then decided to not use any of the departure yard for the duration of the fire. We would  clear and remove from service for the duration of the fire tracks 6-24 in the class yard, leaving us tracks 25-64 for classification and train make-up if necessary. For the work on tracks 6-24, we would only use supervisory personnel, pulling the cars back over the hump where the clerks could rerecord every car number and keep our inventory straight. We would line the cars up on 1 Main West.

Meanwhile back in the east yard, on tracks 3 and 4, we had made up and inspected the midnight transfer train that delivered, and picked up, cars to and from the industries located along what we called the “Chemical Coast” from Bayway to Parlin, N.J. The transfer was known, appropriately enough, as CC4 (Chemical Coast 4).

CC4 ran seven days a week, delivering about 130 cars (mostly loads, and mostly chemicals), representing about $1 million in revenue each night. The return trip brought the yard about 150 cars (mostly empties being routed home) on six out of seven nights. On Sunday nights, actually early Monday mornings, after delivering the loads, CC4 came back “light,” without cars. The plants didn’t work on Sundays, mostly, and we didn’t work our yard jobs to spot and pull the plants on Sundays.

But this was Friday’s train from Thursday’s arrivals, and we needed the space in the eastbound yard as much if not more than we needed the $1 million in revenue.

The crew came on duty at 11:59 PM, and we moved heaven and earth to dispatch the train by 1:30 AM. My personal best at getting the train on the move out of the yard was 12:47 AM.

We had an ace crew on CC4, and if you’ve worked on a railroad you know what that means: You had a crew who just couldn’t work enough, never slacked off, and would hustle every minute for 12 hours as long as they were guaranteed 12 hours on every assignment. It also meant we protected that crew; we let it be known how displeased we might be if somebody displaced our ace engineer or ace conductor from this assignment through the exercise of seniority.

After the blast passed the hump, CC4’s crew returned and climbed aboard their locomotives (four GP15s) and waited for orders. I walked down to the second floor, got the waybills for the train from the clerk’s office and walked over to the locomotives. “Call yourself out to the hump,” I said. “You double 3 to 4. I’ll make the coupling, cut in the air and walk the brakes back to the rear car.”

The conductor took the waybills and the printout of the train consist, noting the car numbers designating the different blocks of cars to be set out enroute. The engineer requested permission and a route to the train. We got our route, west on the hump lead, double 3 to 4, out at Pike connection.

We moved, watching the storage tank burn ever brighter as we got further away. The intense heat of the fire was melting the sides of the storage tank, and flaming gasoline was flowing over the sides into the “pond” behind the berm.

“Where were you when it hit, Dave?” asked the conductor.

“Checking the clock,” I said, “so I’d know what time I died.”

That brought a chuckle.

We made the coupling on 3, cut in the air, and waited to get some air in the train before we pulled down Pike connection to make the double. Ten minutes later the engineer called himself out at Pike to the operator at Upper Bay, asking permission to move out Pike to Peak, to the N&E secondary. He got the OK, and I dropped off the engine as he started to move, waiting for the first half of the train to clear so I could stop the train, throw the switch for track 4 and double back to pick up the rear end of the train.

I made the double, released the handbrakes on the first five cars, coupled the air hoses, cut in the air and began walking back to the rear end of the now complete train. As I walked, the engineer started to pull, and as the rear end approached, I gave him the car lengths to the stop: “Conrail J-29 to CC4. Ten cars to the stop CC4.”

“Ten cars, roger CC4.”

“Five cars, CC4.”

“Roger, five on CC4.” I heard the brakes begin to set up as the engineer began his brake application.

“Two cars, CC4.”

“Roger, two cars CC4.”

“On the stop, CC4, on the stop. Set your brakes.”

“Roger, CC4 stopping. Setting the brakes.” I checked the brake application on the last car, the high intensity marker, and called for the brake release.

“Release,” answered the engineer. The brake cylinders released with a hiss, and the brake shoes on the last car pulled back from the wheels.

“OK on the brakes CC4. OK to go.”

This time the conductor answered, “OK Dave, watch yourself. Don’t play with fire.”

“Right, Joe,” I said. “See you when you get back. I’m sure I’ll still be here.”

“No whimpering,” said CC4’s conductor.

That was our motto at the hump; our secret handshake, so to speak: “No whimpering.” I looked at my watch. It was 4:15 AM. We had dispatched our first train four hours after the explosion.

I caught a ride back to the hump with a car inspector working another train in the yard.

I don’t think I was back at the hump ten minutes when the “hot line” rang. This was a dedicated inbound line. We couldn’t dial out. Others could dial in. I picked up the phone. “Schanoes,” I said.

“Who’s this?” said the voice on the other end.

“I already told you who I am. You called me. So who are you?”

“My name’s Hasselman,” meaning Richard Hasselman, Conrail Senior VP of Operations. I stuttered a bit. “Mr. Hasselman, what can I do for you?”

“Oh, I just want to know if you are all crazy on that division, or is it just a few of you?”

“I don’t understand sir.”

“I mean, you dispatched a train four hours after your yard is blown halfway to hell. Are you all crazy?”

“Lunatics, sir,” I said. “Every single one of us. Stark raving mad. Certifiable, to tell the truth. That’s why we’re all here in the first place.”

“That’s what I figured. Thank you.” And he hung up.

We went back to humping cars as scheduled, on schedule at 7 AM. The fire burned through the entire weekend and Monday until 7 PM Monday night. During those 90 hours, we received our “normal” number of trains. No train was diverted from Oak Island.

Lunatics. Stark raving mad. Certifiable, in fact. And no whimpering.

Editor’s Note: I was living in the North Ward of Newark, N.J., my home town, at the time and remember being jolted out of my sleep by the explosion, only a few miles away. Thirty-five years later, here’s Railway Age regular contributor Dave Schanoes recounting his experience, telling us how the railroaders at Conrail kept the trains moving. The location is where my 18-year-old son Craig cut his eye teeth as a railroader as a Conrail intern at the Oak Island engine house during the summer of 2017. And Dick Hassleman? He’s alive and kicking, as irascible as ever, in Sanibel Island, Florida. Serendipity, I tell you. — William C. Vantuono, January 18, 2018

Categories: Class I, David Schanoes, Regulatory, Switching & Terminal Tags: , , ,