Editor’s Note — The following article is reprinted from the Independent Herald’s November 24, 1979 edition.
GLENMARY — “I thought a bomb had hit,” said Dimple Shoopman, as she gathered up a handful of personal belongings and left her home here Saturday afternoon, following the derailment of two northbound Southern Railroad freight trains.
“There was a big ‘whoof,’ and flames shot straight up in the air,” said Bill Gunter, who watched the boxcars, tankers and even diesel engines careen off the tracks and scatter over several hundred yards of the Glenmary crossing.
“I just froze,” said 75-year-old Herman Jones, who was standing in his front yard less than 100 yards from the point where several derailed cars came to rest.
Reactions from 30 or more Glenmary residents who witnessed the double-train derailment were more or less the same. Surprise. Shock. Fear.
The little Scott County town that never made the headlines did so over the weekend as one of Southern’s most devastating derailments shook news reporters, photographers and TV crews out of hiding. They converged on the former railroad town from all directions and, for a time, made the sleepy little town bustle with excitement.
It wasn’t the first major derailment in Glenmary’s (or Southern’s) history. There have been several, including one which Herman Jones recalls back in 1926 which claimed several lives. That was a passenger train which derailed on what Jones calls “the Glenmary bend,” a long, winding, banked curve just south of where the depot used to stand.
Still, Jones and other people in the community say this particular derailment was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Jones contends the train wreck occurred when a flatcar loaded with old railroad ties “rose up off the tracks” and the other cars piled up behind it. “Then, this other train, on the number one track, came around the curve and slammed into a car which was across the tracks,” Jones recalls.
Damage estimates run into the millions, and officials say it was miraculous that no one was killed or even seriously injured. Although the first train to derail did so in the middle of a long string of cars (the engine ended up a half-mile north), the second train to leave the tracks was a head-on type of crash, with all three lead engines being derailed, the first one plunging nose-first into the high waters of Webb Creek.
Those within ear shot compare the sound of the rumbling, tumbling accident to a bomb, an earthquake, or loud thunder. It was over in seconds and there was reportedly an eerie silence as the dust and debris settled all around.
Those within seeing distance compared the derailing trains to “a bunch of dominoes,” or “a house of cards falling down.” Bill Gunter said he’d lived near the tracks in Glenmary all his life and this was the first time he had seen a pile up.
“It happened real quick, I don’t think either train was going very fast,” said Gunter.
Almost directly in front of Herman Jones’ house were two overturned tankers, one of them leaking a milky-looking substance into a rain-swollen ditch line. The chemical, it turned out, was not a toxic one. On up the tracks another tanker was ruptured. It was identified as chlorine and was the reason that Civil Defense personnel later ordered an evacuation of the area surrounding the overturned trains.
The split in the side of the chlorine tanker, however, was “just an outer shell rupture,” according to one railroad official, but was enough of a threat to warrant sealing off the area to all but wrecking crews and emergency personnel.
Evacuation procedures began around 2 p.m. Saturday, and the precautionary state of emergency remained in effect until shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday, a period in which area residents spent at the evacuation center in Robbins or with family members and friends residing outside the Glenmary area.
On two separate occasions, traffic along U.S. 27 was stopped. Motorists who said they “had to get through” either waited until the roadblock was lifted or else turned around to seek another route down U.S. 127 several miles to the west, or on I-75 to the east.
Meanwhile, a specialized wrecking crew, composed of a mile-long caravan of tractor-trailer rigs loaded with heavy equipment, was dispatched to the scene. The caravan arrived shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday to a carnival-like atmosphere of lights and activity at the Glenmary crossing, where huge portable lighting units had been erected and a Southern “derrick” crane was on station lifting cars back on the tracks.
On Hwy. 27, a block away from where all the heavy equipment was busy clearing the debris, rescue squads men, the county’s Civil Defense Director Rankin Burchfield Jr., Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Earl Carson and a contingent of Scott County Sheriff’s Department deputies were directing traffic and waiting for the signal that the potentially-dangerous chlorine tanker was to be righted.
The signal came early Sunday morning. Traffic was stopped a mile or so north of the derailment scene, as well as a mile south. Two hours later, when the threat of a chlorine leakage had passed, the emergency was over. Within 12 hours after the lifting of the emergency, train traffic along the two mainline tracks of Southern Railroad was moving again.
It was mid-day on Sunday when the first through rail traffic began to ease its way through Glenmary. By that hour, most of the community’s residents were settled back in their homes and traffic was moving at almost a normal rate along U.S. 27.
This article is the July 2018 installment of Forgotten Times, presented by United Cumberland Bank on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the July 26, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.