Fiery Train-truck Collision
36 freight cars derailed
Anchorage Daily News
Saturday, August 5, 1972

A fuel-laden freight train burned here Friday after a collision with an empty tank truck on a rail crossing at Mile 57 of the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway.

Twin mile-high plumes of black smoke marked the crossing where the southbound truck was belted by the big northbound freight.  Thirty-six derailed freight cars burned through the night.

A big dent in the nose of the first of six locomotives pulling the 96-car train suggested that the Mukluk Freight Lines, Inc. rig was chopped as it crossed the flat railroad crossing amidst birch and aspen trees at 3:20 p.m.

The truck cab, which looked like a tiny tinker toy next to 36 derailed tank, flatbed and boxcars, was on the south side of the rail crossing and the tanker and pump sections were entangled with railway equipment on the north side of the tracks.

Mukluk Driver Theodore G. Lesko was treated for minor injuries at Valley Memorial Hospital in Palmer and released.  None of the three trainmen was injured.  Lesko told state troopers that he didn't see the rail crossing sign and indicated that it might not have been flashing.

The Alaska Railroad's assistant general manager, Delbert L. Allen, said that five tank cars and two box cars, carrying at least 100,000 pounds of jet (JP 40) fuel, aviation gas, diesel oil, stove oil and motor gas were among the wrecked rolling stock that is valued at $520,000.

Flames topped by twin columns of thick black smoke were fed for hours by the fuel, but did not spread to neighboring woods.  The fire did consume furniture, general merchandise and several automobiles that had been aboard flatbed cars and were flung on top of the stacked rail cars.

Allen said that the railroad hasn't determined exactly what happened, but speculated that the locomotive either derailed or "came to a screeching halt" while the freight cars piled up behind.

The derailment, which covered several hundred yards, reportedly was the first in Alaska Railroad history that resulted in a collision with a vehicle.

About 60 rail cars were detached from the back end of the train and hauled to Matanuska, about seven miles south of Palmer.

Foam crews from the Elmendorf Air Force Base fire department were expected to smother the blaze before railroad bulldozer crews could begin pushing the rubble off the tracks to clear the main line.

About 165 persons stranded on the southbound passenger train disembarked near Willow, where they were picked up by five chartered buses.  Passengers taking the train this morning will be bused from the railroad station at 9:00 a.m. to Willow where they will board the northbound train.

Bureau of Land Management fire management officer Chet Putnam said the fire did little damage to neighboring woods but appeared to have enough fuel for a controlled burn of several days.

BLM crews prepared to set up a fire line, but 6,000 gallons of red Phoseck, a claylike fire retardant, that was dropped in three passes by a PB4Y four-engine BLM plane from Anchorage appeared to stop any spread of the blaze to the rear of the train or the woods.  The Air Force also sent a helicopter equipped with a 500-gallon water bucket, but it was not used for the petroleum-heated fire.

Railroad officials said the foam should dampen the fire sufficiently to allow main line operations and pumping transfer operations of any remaining fuel.  "I don't know whether it will all burn or we'll get some of it taken care of first," Allen said.

The smoke billowed about 1,500 feet straight up before forming a large, slightly lopsided mushroom that was visible from Anchorage.

Fire units from Willow, Elmendorf and Wasilla, along with about 15 fire officers, four troopers and about 50 spectators, mostly watched as the fire occasionally shuddered from exploding 50-gallon barrels and burned under control for hours.

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Spark Re-Ignites Railroad Fuel Fire
Anchorage Daily Times
August 5, 1972


A spark during clean-up work today re-ignited a towering, searing fire along the Alaska Railroad as clean-up crews were mopping up the remains of the blaze, touched off yesterday in a train-truck collision.

The spark rekindled the fire shortly before 11 a.m. today.  Fire crews had thought the fire was under control, after working since the accident at 3:17 p.m. yesterday to control the blaze.

Railroad men, federal and state workers, battled the fire through the night and thought they had it under control this morning.

Railroad men described as a "near miracle" the fact that no one was seriously injured.

The grinding collision of the Alaska Railroad freight train and a fuel-tanker truck on the Anchorage-Fairbanks highway crossing at Mile 56 touched off the blaze, which caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage and cut off power to more than 250 families in a wide area.

The accident occurred south of Houston, but no one would say immediately how it occurred.  A tanker truck owned by Mukluk Freight Lines, Inc. carrying a fuel tank on the truck and towing a trailer, was returning to Anchorage and collided with the northbound freight at crossing.

The train struck the low boy trailer, slicing it apart.  The truck was hurled off the road, but the driver, Theodore G. Lesko, of Gregory Road, fled on foot and suffered only minor injuries.  He was treated at Valley Hospital in Palmer and released.

John Martin Jr., engineer on the 96-car train, and Jim Kirwan, fireman, both of Anchorage, also escaped injury.  They said it happened so fast they could not say how the accident occurred.

"We were all there at the crossing at the same time," Martin said, speaking of his train and the truck.  "The next thing we knew there was fire all over everything, and we jumped out even before the engine stopped.

"We were worried about some of the brakemen, but no one was injured."

An unidentified railroad lineman was working at the crossing when he suddenly found himself amidst the careening and tumbling railroad cars as they piled up into one jumbled, twisted mass.  He also escaped injury, but was reported later to be in shock and left the scene.

Within seconds, fire erupted from cars containing 55-gallon drums of aviation gasoline originally destined for Eielson Air force Base near Fairbanks.  Fire roared hundreds of feet into the air and the dense black column of smoke was easily visible from Anchorage.

Dave Tempest, ARR dispatcher in Anchorage, said he was informed that one of the six engines pulling the long train was destroyed.  An estimated 33 to 36 of the 96 cars also were destroyed or damaged.

While all resources from neighboring towns and Anchorage were marshaled to help fight the fire, "described as something like Hell," the effects of the accident were felt for a great distance.

Willard Johnson, general manager of Matanuska Electric, said a power line at the crossing was knocked out, cutting power off to more than 250 homes over a wide area from Little Susitna north to Nancy Lake and Willow and up Hatcher Pass road.  The intense heat of the fire prevented maintenance crews from getting close enough to repair the damaged line during the night.  Johnson said he hoped service could be restored by noon today.

James G. Dye, president of Mukluk, which owned the truck-trailer, said investigators representing his company "also are trying to piece together what happened" to cause the accident.  No immediate explanation was available.

Volunteer firemen rushed to the wreck immediately after word was received from Wasilla, Willow and Big Lake.  The BIg Lake volunteer fire department strung more than 1,000 feet of line to try and cool the fire down.

About three hours after the accident, a series of violent explosions erupted as the fire spread to the ruptured tank cars and they burned for about 30 minutes before starting to die down.

The military from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska State Troopers and the Bureau of Land Management moved in to assist in controlling the blaze.

A BLM aerial tanker spread 7,200 gallons of fire retardant in and around the scene, keeping the fire from spreading extensively to the surrounding heavily-forested hills.

Carlton C. Ford, civilian chief of the Elmendorf Fire Department, also went to the scene to assist in fighting the fire.  Helicopters were sent in to carry supplies and move personnel around the area.

M. Sgt. Ronald H. Reiswig, Vale, Ore., assistant fire chief at Elmendorf, estimated that some 15,000 gallons of foam were sprayed on the fire to bring it under temporary control.

"We fought the thing from 4:30 yesterday until about 4:30 a.m. while the railroad brought in bulldozers to pull the cars apart," he said.

"It was hard to get to the fire, it was so hot.  Everything was in a big mess.  We had turrets on our foam truck and also used hand lines to go in and knock the fire down."

With the fire under apparent control the trucks were pulled back.  Then, about 10 a.m., Dave Tempest said:

"We were pushing some cars around and one of the tanks spilled, caught fire and away it went.  We're letting it burn."

Earlier estimates by railroad officials were that the track could be cleared and service restored by late tonight.

Passengers southbound from Fairbanks were picked up yesterday by some buses at Willow and brought into Anchorage.  Northbound passengers today also were put on buses at the depot here, driven to Willow, and put aboard the train.  No further freight trains were scheduled before Monday and officials expected to have the line clear by that time, unless further fires break out.

[Webmaster's note: The lead locomotive in the accident was 2503]

News article's photographs: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Here are photos from the collision