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Death on the Tracks: 40th Anniversary of the Bay Line Train Derailment

BAY COUNTY, Fla. - Forty years ago Bay County experienced one of its most tragic events.  A Bay Line train, carrying chlorine gas, derailment near Youngstown, Florida. 

Any train derailment, involving nearly 150 cars, would be considered catastrophic. But when some of those cars contain chlorine gas, the results can be deadly. That was the case in here in Bay County on an eerie February morning 40 years ago.   

It was the middle of the night, February 26th, 1978. 

"It was a bad fog, probably the worst fog we've ever had," said Tommy Loftin. 

Former Bay County sheriff's deputy Tommy Loftin was making his normal rounds along Highway 231 near Youngstown when he saw people staggering in the parking lot of a convenient store near Lingerlonger Road. 

"I thought someone was breaking in to the place," said Loftin.

Turns out it was the train conductor and rear brakeman who escaped the derailed train. Loftin called for every back-up personnel in Bay County. Local news videographer Bill Hudson also received a call.

"I got up there and there was a mess," said Hudson. 

Tanks filled with chlorine gas ruptured, spreading gas within a two mile radius. The gas cloud chocked out the engines of cars traveling on Highway 231.

"It was like the last man on earth. There was no traffic, but every once in a while you would see a car on the side of the road, or a car in the middle of the road, just sitting there," said Hudson.

It moved through the cars' ventilation, suffocating the people inside. 

"You know when you stand there and watch a deputy pull a dead body out...that was scary," said Husdon. 

Law enforcement searched through the fog for survivors. 

"I thought I was walking in mud and I was actually walking in caustic acid along with the chlorine gas and it ate the nails off my shoes, the necklace off my neck, the nickel off my pistol, and the bay line was nice enough to buy me a new pair of shoes, and have my pistol re-nickeled," said Loftin.

Loftin was in the gas for more than an hour with a gas mask, that he found out later, was only supposed to protect him for 30 minutes.     

"I'm very lucky to be alive, I get to looking at my story, get to thinking about that night and I should have died five times that night," said Loftin.

Eight people died, and about 118 others were injured. Also, 2,500 people evacuated. Countless livestock also died. Doug Davis was the Bay Line chief engineer at the time of the derailment. He said in the following days the environmental protection agency came down to access the damage.

"It was supposed to rain and they saw the ditches ran into Bear Creek and so they asked me to go in and I had one other volunteer with me to go in and make a hand made dyke to keep water from going down into the Bay County water supply in case it did rain," said Davis.

The clean up took almost a month. 

"It affected many many people up in that area, they couldn't get back into their homes, they were evacuated, it was a big big story. They had press conferences from FBI, railroad, safety people, for weeks afterwards," said Hudson.

Federal agents confiscated all of Hudson's footage. He also helped them by taking pictures of evidence.  

"My opinion is that that rail was moved. Because you could see the notch in that lead rail where the front wheel of the engine hit it, and of course they took all those pictures too," said Hudson.

Even after all the media coverage and investigations ended, nobody knows for sure the cause behind the events of that night.

"My opinion because of what I saw, the pictures I took, the trip to the courthouse to see that rail...I feel it was sabotage. But who did it? I don't know," said Hudson.

The Bay Line crash happened just a few weeks after a similar derailment and chlorine gas spill in Waverly, Tennessee. That's why the FBI got involved. After all the investigations, no one was ever charged in the Youngstown derailment. There was another train derailment two year prior in the exact same location. It was suspected that the same people were responsible for both. Many families sued Bay Line and their parent company, International Paper but the lawsuits were settled as a jury was selected.

    


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