Railroad Accidents

by Don Prince, Jim “Bones” Reekie, Albert Bailey, Ben Parrish, Stu White and Jim Sava

On May 4, 2004 six retirees from the Alaska Railroad got together and shared stories from their past with John Combs. Here’s a list of “the boys” and their years of service with the Alaska Railroad: Don Prince (1950-1980) yardmaster, Jim “Bones” Reekie (1941-1978) conductor, Albert Bailey (1949-1974) engineer, Ben Parrish (1950-1985) engineer, Stu White (1948-1982) engineer and Jim Sava (1950-1963 and 1982-1994) engineer. Together they had a combine Alaska Railroading experience of 185 years!

One of their story telling highlights was discussing accidents and near misses they had experienced during their tenure with the railroad. The following is a transcript of that segment.

Don Prince: I was in the back unit (locomotive) down in the hole. I figured I would be covered up with those cars coming. The ditcher got in that hole and deflected all those cars. The mechanical reefer came up in the air and "bang" it was thrown to the side. One went this way and one went that way. The head end didn't want to call me because they figured I was dead. [See "Freight Train Wreck at Houston" for the full story.]

John Combs: Are you the only one in the room that has been involved in a wreck?

James Sava: I've been in one, but didn't get hurt. It closed the railroad for four days. It happened a half a mile south of Bird, milepost 80.5 in 1986. We were coming back from Seward with a long freight and the draft gear, the draw bar in the third car back got jammed back into the car and swung to one side. We came around the curve, yanked it off the track and eleven more cars followed it. If you go back and look at that mess you'd think I was going 60 miles an hour. We were only going 25.

John Combs: What cars came off the tracks?

James Sava: Well there was a boxcar and a bunch of piggy backs. One of the piggy backs had cases of antifreeze in it. The boxcar landed right across that semi and split that all open. The antifreeze filled up every cavity on the ground there was. There was rail standing straight up in the air, some of it curled up like a shepherd's hook. I couldn't believe it. It set fire to a lot of cross ties.

Stu White: I hit one with the first passenger train of the year. We were coming back south, running a little bit late and passing through Wasilla. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was blowing the whistle coming through those rural crossings. This old pickup truck was pulling onto the crossing and stalled. I'm blowing the whistle and no one is getting out of the truck. I'm blowing the whistle and getting ready to plug it, I noticed the door open on the passenger's side. I noticed a guy jumped out with a baby. They ran to the engineer's side of the track. The gal jumped out of the other side. I plugged it (put the train into emergency) doing 49 mile an hour. I hit that pickup and I tell you the hood, doors, dust went flying. The truck flew to the other side of the tracks. I didn't feel anything inside the locomotive. We had a big delay to call the state trooper and have our mechanical department to do an air test, procedures, etc. It cost us a good hour and a half.

Ben Parrish: I've hit several things that were minor. I guess the worst one was a semi with a backhoe on it at Klatt road crossing in 1980. It was two guys that had just got off work. They loaded up that backhoe. The guy with the semi took off and his buddy was racing him in his pickup truck. I saw them coming off the hill at the cemetery and I that, "What are they doing?" Well the guy in the pickup shot on across and I thought, "That guy in the semi is nuts, he'll never make it" We caught him right on the fifth wheel. I figured he was dead, but it didn't kill him. It derailed the engine and knocked all the floor boards up. I was looking down at the ties and thinking "Man!" It was the old John Manley, number 3051.

Ben Parrish: That same Klatt road I hit a woman and two kids one morning, going south. After the collision, I walked back to the car. They had already got them out of there and I saw blood and glass everywhere. I read in the newspaper later that they took them to the hospital, checked them out and sent them home. They got lucky.

James Sava: That must be a jinxed place because about 1959 I was coming back to Whittier with a passenger train, that old number 1001 and two coaches. We were steaming along there and an old 1952 Ford with two guys in it heads to the crossing. My fireman yelled, "Plug her!" I couldn't see anything because the unit had long hood forward. We hit that car right, well the drawbar imprint was right where the back door latches. It spun that car around and all four door fly open. We were still going and went almost to the north switch. When the train stopped, I whistled off and backed it up. The car was sitting there with a big huge dent in the right side of it, the doors are still open and there is a complete circle of groceries around that car. Well these two guys had been to the grocery store, went to the cemetery and left some flowers. When they approached the crossing they said all they saw was the setting sun. What they saw was that headlight. We were told later that if I hadn't plugged it when I did, we would have T boned it square in the middle. Just that little bit of distance made it possible for them to drive it away. The federal agent came out, did all his stuff, they put the groceries back in the car and drove away.

Stu White: By God that reminds me one time of when I was firing for Mike Kopcha and we had a short train at the Rainbow crossing. We were coming south, blowing the whistle, doing everything we were supposed to do and there was a brand new Volvo coming from the east side. The plow caught the bumper right on the end. Just that much more and he would have made it. We hit that thing and it spun around like a top. It spun around so many times that the doors, hood and truck flew open. The guy must have had eight or ten gallons of antifreeze and a bunch of tools in the trunk and they scattered all over the ground. After we stopped, we backed the train up. The guys was still in the car and strapped in. He had a pretty good cut on his head. It was cold in the dead of winter so we put him in the cab of the locomotive so he wouldn't get hypothermia. I had just finished a course in first aid. I got the first aid kit out and bandaged up the guy's head. We called the paramedics from Wasilla. They came up, checked him out and took him into town.

James Sava: As close as you can come to having a wreck and still not having a wreck, Tony and I were coming out of Fairbanks on a cold wintery night about 50 below zero. They had put five of these 1500s together. We had about 125 cars, most of them were empty hoppers. We were leaving Fairbanks and moving fairly quick and get out to that last crossing there at University. I looked down the track, it was dark, pitched dark and I said, "Tony, there's something down there moving." So he dumped it (put the train into emergency) right now. A G.I. had driven 1949 Mercury four door sedan off that road onto the tracks and was planning on backing out and going back. However, with the way the snow and ice had built up, the tracks were lower than the ice. So he gets right there with his wheels on both of those and he can't back up. He's standing there with an old gray jersey and he's waving it and that Mercury was white. We get the picture there all of a sudden and Tony brings it to a stop. The train's knuckle came down there and pinged the door in. When we backed up it popped back out.

John Combs: I talked to an engineer by the name of Tim Gobbi and he tells the story of being in an RDC. I don't remember the location, but he hit a truck camper.

James Sava: Rex crossing.

John Combs: He said sheet metal from the truck camper came in his window. Fortunately the impact was so hard it knocked him out of his chair onto the floor. If he would have stayed in his chair the sheet metal would have taken his head off.

James Sava: It came in the front window, hit that wall behind his head and went out the side window. I think Dick Long was the conductor. He was standing in the doorway or right inside the cab. People were standing in the doorway and when they saw they were going to hit, he turned and pushed everybody back and he fell on the floor. Gobbi was watching what's going, it was an International Travelall pulling a little camping trailer. He went right through that camping trailer, it exploded and it derailed the Budd car. You know why the railroads in the lower 48 quit running them? They had 50 engineer fatalities until they quit running them.

Ben Parrish: You're the first one at the scene with one of those square nose jobs.

James Sava: I took two of them (RDCs) to Seward. We got up to 46.5 headed toward Grandview and the track had a lot of frost heaves in it. Those Budd cars bounced so hard at 20 miles an hour, it was leaving marks in the plow and eventually tore the plow off of it.

Ben Parrish: Well nobody in this room has ever killed anybody, have they?

Bones Reekie: Well one guy, he hit an empty tanker.

Ben Parrish: But he didn't kill the guy, did he?

Bones Reekie: No. They also had that wreck at Houston. That caused a big fire, but nobody got hurt.

James Sava: They turned the 800 over in Nenana, but nobody got hurt on that.

[Stu White later added this story: ]

We had these old Alcos that had been converted from steam. This guy by the name of Gordon Buthy was a jack of all trades. He was an undertaker, veterinarian and engineer.

I was firing for a guy named Les Harrington. We were on a job and Gordon bumped him. He hadn't been on the north end before. We stopped at Wasilla and Nancy lake and dropped freight. As we came into Houston, we knew there was a freight ahead of us.

I was watching this guy Buthy. He was the type who didn't talk much. We were really clicking them off. I don't know how fast we were going since those old Alcos didn't have speed recorders. The track had just been rebuilt and was good for any speed you wanted to go.

Well, you could see pretty far back in those days. There wasn't a lot of brush. I can see the freight on the main far in the distance. I became a little worried because Buthy didn't seem to be too concerned about the approaching freight. So I said, "Hey, were getting kind of close to that car, aren't we?" Finally, he sets some air. I then said, "We're going to beat Hell!" And then he realized what was happening and plugged the train (put it into emergency).

I figured we were going to get killed. We were still going a heck of a speed. We were going to run right into that darn caboose. So he reached over and reversed the engine and opened the throttle. Those darn wheels locked on the locomotive and we slid for 10 to 15 car lengths. It was brand new rail and we cut big blue curls off of the rail. There was seven inch flat spots on the front of that engine!

We stopped about two car lengths in front of that caboose. If I hadn't said anything, we would have plowed right into it. I know I saved our lives plus the crew which were eating in the caboose.


© 2004 Don Prince, Jim “Bones” Reekie, Albert Bailey, Ben Parrish, Stu White and Jim Sava