Two historic derailments, just uprail from Benicia

Repost from The Fairfield Daily Republic

A tale of 2 train derailments

By Tony Wade  |  October 18, 2013
Derailment in Fairfield, CA at 6:30 am on May 29, 1978, Memorial Day.

At 6:30 am on May 29, 1978, Memorial Day, a thunderous noise that neighbors later described as sounding like an earthquake, nuclear explosion and the end of the world all at once occurred.

I was 14 years old and evidently enjoying my exquisite recurring Lynda Carter dream because I heard absolutely nothing.

The deafening din was the derailment of a Southern Pacific train on the tracks that ran right behind my family’s Davis Drive home. The westbound train had 24 of its 66 cars (each 93 feet long and weighing more than three tons) jump the tracks when the rear wheel assembly on the lead car broke.

When we looked out over our back fence, there were rail cars and debris scattered everywhere. With houses abutting the tracks on both sides, it was a miracle no one got hurt. It did knock down a power line, which caused both a blackout for more than 2,600 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers for more than an hour and sparked a 200-square-foot grass fire.

I have several photos from back then. My favorite is one of me playing basketball against my dad in the backyard and peeking over the fence are the wrecked cars. A couple of days later, my best friend Wayne Thomas and I sneaked inside one of them and rode our bikes down its length.

Since that derailment happened literally in our backyard, it is memorable for me personally, and others who lived near it, but it had nothing on a derailment that happened in Solano County in 1969.

I am not usually one given to sensationalism, but in this case it is warranted. The other derailment involves: The FBI! U.S. Navy SEALs! White Phosphorus! Sabotage! Really!

At approximately 1 a.m. on March 19, 1969, a southbound 40-car train derailed in a remote area near Chadbourne Road adjacent to the Suisun Marsh. Thirty-one cars went a-flyin’ and unfortunately two of them contained 90 tons apiece of liquid white phosphorus, and they ruptured.

White phosphorus ignites when it comes into contact with the air and the resultant firestorm was fierce. The Solano Fire Protection District was aided in the firefight by U.S. Navy SEAL underwater frogmen from Mare Island who happened to be training nearby when the derailment occurred.

Once the flames were extinguished, there was still the matter of what to do with the two cars nearly filled with white phosphorus that were half-buried in the mud. Twenty-eight hours after the derailment, the decision was made to bury them there and cover them with an unreinforced concrete cap and fence it off with obvious warning signs.

By the way, a third car was buried as well, but it only had corn in it.

After a preliminary investigation by the Solano County Sheriff’s Office and Southern Pacific, foul play was suspected and (cue the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. show’s music) . . . the FBI was notified.

Evidence that the track had been altered was found. Rails on the track were disconnected and a heavy object had been placed on them. The FBI called it “an intentional derailment.”

It looked like a case of (cue the Beastie Boys’ song) . . . Sabotage.

It could have been much worse because that track was Southern Pacific’s main line for passenger trains entering and leaving San Francisco. No one was ever caught for the crime.

Meanwhile, the phosphorus train cars (and the harmless corn one) remained buried for decades. In fact, they are still there.

I was intrigued when I learned about the white phosphorus crash site and went directly from the microfilm machine at the Civic Center Library to the site at the end of Chadbourne Road. You just keep going past where the road is no longer paved and come to a dead end and you will see the fenced-in area with the signs warning of white elemental phosphorus.

The site is monitored annually and in 1998 a deed restriction was recorded that bars it from ever being developed. It lists specific things that can never be built there just in case someone gets a wild hair to plant a day care center, school or hospital in a marsh area, right next to the train tracks where white phosphorus is buried.