Marine Corps veteran Roy Althiser was headed home from a construction job at Country Club Chevrolet in Oneonta, driving north to Worcester, when he noticed fire trucks racing toward what he knew was an emergency call.
A volunteer for the Worcester Fire Department, Althiser pulled into a nearby gas station and within a few minutes was on board a pumper truck from the Schenevus Fire Department. They would soon join city of Oneonta firefighters and the volunteers from Milford Fire Department at what is now recalled as one of the worst railroad disasters in New York history.
This was 40 years ago today — Feb. 12, 1974 — when a Delaware and Hudson freight train that had left Binghamton earlier that afternoon derailed four miles north of Oneonta. It had been traveling at 32 mph when the brakes were applied.
Oneonta city firefighters were the first on the scene, arriving 10 minutes after the 4:19 p.m. derailment. Minutes later they were joined by the Milford and Schenevus firefighters, and several other local volunteers who joined in, such as Althiser. The derailment took place along a stretch of track that is between what is now the Ousterhoudt Commercial Refrigeration building on State Route 7 and the Susquehanna River.
Before the afternoon was over, a large propane tank that flipped over after several of the cars screeched off the track would puncture. That event, according to federal investigators, sparking a fire that led to a series of explosions of three of the cars. A total of 54 people — most of them firefighters, and a few members of the press covering the event — were injured in the blast. Several nearby houses were also damaged.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that “the probable cause of this accident was the inability of the track to resist the lateral forces which canted the outside rail outward and widened the gauge of the track. These forces which were induced at the third locomotive unit resulted from the emergency application of the brakes when the train was separated between the third and fourth cars as it entered the 3 (degree) 30 (foot) curve.”
Among the report’s findings was that the “firemen had not received information from the D&H on matters that would have aided them in combating the fire.”
The report also that that the Oneonta Fire Department was notified of the mishap by the yardmaster at the Oneonta rail yard.
The report pointed out: “Since the department was informed that the fire was caused by gas, firemen left the station with the impression that they would encounter a tank car gasoline fire.”
Another finding dealing with communication gaps was that “no one knew of a specific point of contact with the D&H where they could obtain information concerning the trains or the railroad.”
Althiser suffered one of the more traumatic injuries in the blast — losing his left leg. He was 25 years old. He spent the next four months in the hospital. He went home with what he called a 14-inch stump for a leg.
He had hoped what was left of the leg could be saved, but it couldn’t. Eight months after the explosion, he had to go back to the hospital to have the leg fully amputated.
Since that time, he recalled Tuesday, firefighting techniques have become much more sophisticated, protective gear has improved tremendously and firefighters get more training for specialized situations.,
For instance, he said, firefighters responding to a structure fire years ago would try to douse it from the outside with their hoses. Now, he said, when possible, firefighters will enter the building and seek out the source of the fire, attacking it in hopes of saving the properly.
With better communication systems in place today, said Althiser, the now retired coordinator of Otsego County’s emergency 911 system, firefighters would be quickly informed about the hazardous substances that could be encountered if such a derailment were to happen.
“Today, there would be a whole different response,” he said. “You would back off and let it burn if anybody had any inkling as to what was to happen. You would evacuate the area.”
While there has been strong safety concerns in recent weeks in some New York communities regarding the rail shipment of Bakken crude oil to such destinations as the Port of Albany, Althiser said he believes the railroad industry is equipped to complete the task of shipping hazardous materials safely.
The shipment of such products as propane, various other gases and crude oil, he said, are important to the economy. At the same time, he acknowledged that accidents will inevitably happen. “There will be mistakes as long as there are humans,” he said. “It’s just an unfortunate thing. Most of us have no idea what’s coming through here by rail, and if you did, you would never sleep.”
First responders arriving at a derailment today, he said, would quickly acquire a list of materials that the train was transporting from the train’s engineer.
The nation’s $60 billion freight rail industry is regulated by the Federal Railway Administration. In the wake of several rail accidents involving shipments of crude oil and an increased reliance by the drilling industry on rail as a mode of transport, federal officials are calling for oil to be shipped in stronger cars and on safer routes.
“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement recently. She voiced concerns about “the major loss of life” from rail mishaps.
Ellen Pope, director of the environmental group Otsego 2000, said given the proximity of the Canadian Pacific tracks to the Susquehanna River, it would be prudent for local county officials to determine whether Bakken crude oil is being shipped through the region as well as to document other potentially hazardous cargo on the freight trains.
“Every county that is traversed by one of these railroads needs to know what’s coming through just in case — God forbid — something were to happen,” she said.
County Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, said the oil industry has had to resort to rail to get its product to market because of opposition to pipelines. The transmission of oil through a network of pipelines would be a more efficient and safer way to move oil than over rail or by truck, he said.
While the debate over hazardous material shipments is likely to continue, one subject that has been settled for Roy Althiser is his decision to go back to work a few years after the amputation, when he could have stayed home and collected disability checks for the rest of his life.
“Mentally and physically,” the rugged ex-Marine said, “going to work again was the best thing that could have happened to me.”