The mushroom cloud was quite the ball of fire rising above the wreckage of the southbound freight train.
Russell Baker was barely 150 feet away when the tank car hauling propane gas exploded on the tracks of the Brandtsville crossing.
“That was the one that set everyone on fire,” recalled Baker, now 84, of Mechanicsburg. “There was a little bit of everything flying.”
Dirt, rocks and pieces of railroad car were falling all around Baker and the other volunteer firefighters.
A section of ladder just missed him and bounced off the roadway where Route 74 crosses the Yellow Breeches Creek in Monroe Township.
The date was April 28, 1963, and it was a miracle that no one died in the aftermath of the 23-car derailment of a Reading Railroad train.
The Evening Sentinel reported how the accident took place at around 5:45 a.m. when a wheel on one of the cars collapsed causing the others to run off the track.
The resulting chain reaction ignited sparks that spread quickly through the tangled mass of metal and wood that included five cars loaded with highly flammable and explosive material.
The Washington Fire Company of Mechanicsburg was among the first on the scene, arriving there at about 6:10 a.m. “They pulled up right in front of the burning tanks,” the newspaper reported.
“They did not know that some cars contained chlorine gas since the wind was blowing the fumes in the opposite direction,” one story read. Realizing the need for more water, Washington Fire Chief Charles Westhafer ordered several firemen to place two portable pumps in operation.
“Eight men carried the pumps to the edge of the creek and were forced to leave in a hurry,” The Sentinel reported. “When they got back to the truck everybody was heading for the oxygen masks. Two of them didn’t make it and fell over. They were the first two of a long list of firemen brought to the Carlisle Hospital.”
The wind had shifted, causing the fumes to drift over the firemen. Before too long, there were other casualties. Though Baker was in among that cluster of firefighters, he was not felled by the gas. Looking back 50 years, he remembered a greenish looking mist rising out of a ruptured tank car.
“It also made a whistle,” Baker recalled. “There was a lot of pressure behind it. The longer that we were there, the louder the whistle got. We were spraying these tanks ... trying to keep them cool.”
The first explosion
Firefighters from Cumberland, Dauphin and York counties had converged on the scene to reinforce that first group of volunteers which also included men from Boiling Springs, Williams Grove, Dillsburg, Upper Allen and the Citizens Fire Company of Mechanicsburg. For hours, they played streams of water over red hot metal.
At some point, county Civil Defense officials ordered the firefighters to tie the hose lines down and pull back to safety, Baker said. Though water continued to run through the hoses, there were no human hands to direct the stream across the whole surface of the burning tank cars.
Instead, the flow of water was concentrated on just one spot, Baker said. The tanks were not being properly cooled. Time was ticking down to the first explosion that ripped through the scene at 10:15 a.m.
After the first blast subsided, a short conference was held among the firefighters and the decision was made to go down to the scene to straighten out hoses and recover equipment.
Baker was among those given the job. He was to climb onboard a fire truck and back it up the road to safety. The heat was so intense, it melted the plastic headlight rims.
His first job done, Baker returned to the scene again to offer what help he could when the second propane tanker blew up at about 10:45 a.m.
Eyewitnesses reported that everything within 100 yards caught fire because of the heat and force of this blast which sent smoke and fire hundreds of feet into the air.
It was reported that Baker, then 34, was standing with a group of firefighters in a field near the tank car when this explosion took place.
“No one realized it would blow,” Baker told The Sentinel 50 years ago. “When it did go, I turned and ran. I looked back and saw a big ball of fire ... You did not think about it ... It was a matter of trying to outrun the flames from the blast.
“Fire was everywhere,” Baker added. “My coat and hair caught fire while I was running.” Baker suffered second degree burns over his face and hands. He was off work for six weeks recovering from his injuries.
William A. Murtorff of the Goodwill Fire Company in Carlisle was about 50 yards from the wreckage when the fireball came from the burning tanker.
“I gazed in that direction and about that instant, a tremendous explosion rocked the car,” The Sentinel reported Murtorff saying in its April 29 edition. “I saw the tank car lift up into the air, twist over twice and then it landed about 30 yards from me. Then I couldn’t see a thing. I guess I went blind for a minute. I ran as fast as I could until I was behind a building. The heat was terrific.”
When the smoke cleared, Washington firefighters were shocked to find that 1,600 feet of fire hose had been burned to a crisp. Chief Westhafer also reported the loss of four firemen’s coats that were burned right off the backs of their wearers. Citizens company lost 900 feet of hose.
In all, 22 firefighters and other volunteers were treated at nearby hospitals for injuries suffered in the aftermath of the Brandtsville train derailment.
Two other men were hurt in a freak auto accident miles away on North Hanover Street in Carlisle. As the story goes, Mechanicsburg firefighter E. Marvin Sheppard had inhaled fumes at the train wreck scene and had collapsed behind the wheel of his car.
As a result, he lost control and veered over the sidewalk near Louther Street. His car struck two parking meters knocking them over. A piece of one of the meters flew across the street and knocked down a pedestrian named Harrison Rider who suffered a leg injury and had to be hospitalized. Shepperd was revived at the scene and treated by a physician, The Sentinel reported.
*Editor's Note: Story updated to include more responding stations in the wreck. 9:39 a.m. 4/29/13