Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 30th 2014

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Dear Maxwell,
I enjoyed reading your previous article about the plane that crash-landed in Escambia Bay in 1978. I live in the Scenic Heights neighborhood, and I remember when that happened. We had another scary moment just before that when a train derailed. Can you recount the story of that?
-Walter F.

Pensacola’s success as a port city has always been contingent on a good rail system. For over 100 years, goods have been transported to market by trains running through our working city. Although the railways have brought countless benefits, they have also brought their fair share of disaster. One such case is the derailment of the Louisville and Nashville train on Nov. 9, 1977.

Just after 6 p.m., a train made up of two locomotives and 35 freight cars jumped the tracks while traveling along Scenic Highway close to Creighton Road. The train was carrying a toxic chemical called anhydrous ammonia. Two tanks of the ammonia were punctured in the crash, sending lethal doses of poison gas into the atmosphere.

The deadly cloud immediately began poisoning the neighborhood. Motorists traveling down Scenic Highway were affected, as well as families living in the area. The thick concentration of ammonia burned the eyes, skin and respiratory tract of anyone infected. It also displaced the oxygen in the air causing suffocation. Locals covered their faces with wet cloths and ran for safety.

Emergency crews went to work right away. The fire department started by hosing the leaking tankers with water to diffuse the gas. A group of about 35 lawmen began evacuating the area. The officers drove around with their emergency lights flashing and broadcasting a warning over their public address systems. Police later went door-to-door to ensure that everyone heeded the evacuation order. Within an hour of the crash, authorities had completely sealed off a two-square-mile area around the site.

Dozens of locals were rushed to area hospitals for chemical burn treatments. The situation could have proved much worse if not for the weather. Winds blew the poisonous cloud over Escambia Bay and away from the population. The sigh of relief was short-lived because officials realized the need to evacuate the neighborhoods on the other side of the bay. As the cloud slowly drifted over the water, authorities successfully evacuated about 500 people from south Santa Rosa County.

In the end, the derailment of L&R No. 407 caused two deaths, 46 injuries and an estimated $724,000 in property damage. Dr. Jon Thorshov, a pathologist at West Florida Hospital, was the first fatality. The derailment occurred 40 yards from the Thorshov’s home. In addition to Dr. Thorshov’s death, each member of the family was seriously injured. Sadly, they had only lived in their house for one month before the accident.

An investigation into the crash determined that it was caused by faulty tracks and an improper distribution of the train’s weight.

Do you have a local history question for The Public Record?
Email it to thepublicrecord@inweekly.net & we’ll see what we can dig up.