Freight Train Wreck at Houston

by Don Prince

Don PrinceI was working a northbound freight on the afternoon of August 9, 1971.  There were five of us aboard, a conductor, flagman, fireman, engineer and the head brakeman.  I was in number 1508 which was the fifth of five locomotives.  Behind my locomotive was a ditcher (locomotive crane).  Rules mandate that a ditcher cannot exceed 30 miles per hour so our train couldn't exceed that limit.

I went out on the nose of the engine to relieve myself.  This was the common thing to do back then.  I'm standing out there doing my business and suddenly I noticed a lot of water next to the track.  I thought "What the heck?"  I knew something was wrong since it shouldn't be flooded like that.  I left the nose of the engine, went into the cab and sat down in the fireman's seat.  Since this locomotive was facing backwards, I could see the rest of the train and could also see the front of the train through the outside rear view mirror.

Just then I heard the air go.  I thought, "Uh oh!"  Although I didn't know it at the time, a flash flood had washed away a section of the roadbed, creating a large channel underneath.  The first locomotive made it across the channel safely, but the second unit derailed, starting a huge chain reaction.  I looked into the fireman's rear view mirror and I saw the engines in front of me  leaving the track.  I thought, "I'm next!  I'm going for a ride." And I did.  I absolutely will never forget the sound of those cars, engines and rails and all that metal clashing with metal.  The sound it made was just unbelievable.  I hung on tightly and was able to stay in my chair.

As each engine went over, the hole got bigger and bigger.  As my engine crossed, it landed completely in that hole.  The ditcher directly behind my locomotive also set down in the hole.  After the ditcher was a ditcher caboose, outfit car and a mechanical reefer.  Due to the sudden stop, these cars began to jumble up and the next thing I knew the mechanical reefer was flying through the air.  I was gripped with fear as I watched the airborne mechanical reefer coming right at me.  Suddenly, the ditcher deflected the reefer thus saving my life.  I was also lucky we were traveling under the ditcher's 30 mile per hour speed restriction.  Otherwise, we would've been traveling at 49 miles per hour and the story (and possibly myself) would have ended up far worse.

Once everything came to a halt, I got out of my seat and crawled to the back of the tilted locomotive.  I continued on through an F7 B unit and was able to get outside.  I hung on to the outside of it and continued moving forward out of the water so that I could keep my feet dry.  I went to the front of the train and found the rest of the crew.  Fireman Pete Fleming, who was running the lead locomotive at the time, told me he didn't want to radio my locomotive because he figured I was dead.  Fortunately, not one of the crew was injured.  We just got a wild ride.

We then reported to the dispatcher and waited for assistance.  W. C. Davidson, the Superintendent of Transportation, drove out, looked over the scene and then drove us back.  A wrecker was called in.  The railroad always kept a wrecker made up and ready to go.  It had a heavy duty wrecker crane, outfit cars, sleeping quarters and everything.  They kept it provisioned except fresh meat, produce, milk, bread and things like that.  They could get out to an accident site within two or three hours.

Sometime after I left, they began the work of clearing the track.  The environmental people showed up too and wanted to know how much fuel we spilled.  There wasn't a fuel clean up effort since the water had carried everything quickly into the inlet.  They eventually built a section of track around the accident to keep the line open.  I heard they later pulled the tape on the engines and determined we weren't exceeding the speed limit of 30 miles an hour.  If I recall correctly, we were doing 29.  I also found out they had patrolled the track with a gas car ahead of us just by an hour.  This flash flood had also taken out highway bridges in the same area.

Someone asked me if I was hesitant about getting back on a train after an accident like that.  No.  Those 1500s have a roll bar and they're really pretty secure.  I think you could roll them over and still survive it.  But the ditcher, beyond a doubt, saved my life for its speed restriction and the fact it went in the hole and deflected those other cars.

Click here to see photos of this wreck

[Webmaster's note: I am looking for the locomotive line up for this consist.  Here is what I have so far: 1) unknown, 2) GP35 2501, 3) F7B #1525, 4) F7B unknown, 5) F7A #1508.  Please email me if you can fill in any of the blanks.]

Stewart Sterling added on 9/26/05: "If you look at the photos, on the very first photo, one that shows 2501 sideways with no trucks the unit still on the tracks in the distance is 2000 the GP30, you can tell by the shape of the cab!"

Bob Garner added on 1/1/07: "Was going through the history section and believe the unidentified F7B is 1501-2 which was an ex Great Northern. Reason I say this is it has the 36" dynamic fan and the device in front of the 36" fan on 1511 and 1515 is not there on 1501-2. 1509 was set up for steam generator or snow plow service and the cover for this is not on the unidentified locomotive. All Ex DRGW F7's had 48" fans with the exception of 1525 (F3 type Dynamics) and 1517 (36" fan but was set up also for steam generation). That's all I can go by, but I believe it's a good argument."


© 2002 Don Prince