27 Years Later, Part 1

By: Erich Spivey
By: Erich Spivey

February 3, 2005
A train accident early in the morning spilled deadly chlorine gas into the air. We’re not talking about Graniteville, here, but a train wreck years ago in Florida.

News 12 went to Youngstown in northwest Florida, site of another tragic spill in February 1978.

Youngstown was the site of the deadliest train wreck and chemical spill in U.S. history. That is, until the deadly crash in Graniteville last month. Our local tragedy now has new meaning for people in Youngstown, 27 years after the crash sent the tiny Florida town into chaos.

Beaches are golden in Bay County, Florida. A glimpse of the easy-going lifestyle that runs from the sea to the quaint settlement of Youngstown, there’s not much more here than an old church and a tourist stop along with throngs of spring-breakers.

Youngstown is also home to one of the worst disasters in U.S. railroad history.

“We had no clue we were going into something of that magnitude,” said Sherman Rutherford, paramedic, Bay County.

“One of the nurses from the ER called around two o’clock in the morning, said we had a train derailment in Youngstown, so you immediately get up and go,” said Johnny Harris, Bay County Emergency Medical Services.

The date was February 26, 1978. A Saint Andrews Railroad train derails, spewing a lethal cloud of chlorine gas into the air.

Crews rush to the scene, but it’s too late for some. Eight died, hundreds injured, and thousands evacuated.

The train was actually coming south. Johnny Harris works for Bay County’s ambulance service. He was one of the first people to see the mangled wreckage.

“It was derailed back there and with the fog it was drifting to the west and came across the highway,” Harris said.

Harris says it’s something he’ll never forget. But all these years later, some in Bay County actually did. That is until…

“It brought back a lot of memories, a lot of memories,” said Rutherford. “I thought Lord, I know what them boys feel like. It’s a crazy feeling especially when you can’t breathe.”

“All of a sudden I’m thinking this is exactly what happened here,” said Joe Moore, anchor, WJHG-TV.

Joe Moore covered the crash for a Panama City TV station back in 1978.

“Even the video, the aerial video showing the way the tank cars scattered and the box cars went different ways, it looked like the same thing,” Moore said.

“My first thought was, oh lord, now they get to have a go at it. I did not envy anyone,” said Alan Ritchie, Bay County paramedic.

No envy for many reasons. Alan Ritchie remembers gasping for air in ’78.

“They were stacked four or five high,” Ritchie said.

He shared his story along with three colleagues, who all joined Bay County’s rescue squad a year or two before the crash, and they still work there today.

They were among the first emergency responders in February 1978. And they had no idea that mixed in with that early morning fog was a deadly chlorine gas.

“On the way to the hospital you kinda think are they joking with me? And when you walk into the emergency room you see this mass confusion,” Harris said.

“They suddenly smelled something strange. One of them said ‘you smell Clorox?’ The other one said ‘yeah it’s weird’. And suddenly they were into the cloud of chlorine,” said Randy Vick, Director of Bay County Emergency Medical Services.

“When tragedy befalls someone else, we’re kinda used to that in our line of work. But when it reached out and touches you or yours it gets you thinking, more than you want sometimes,” Ritchie said.

“When you first take a breath in, your lungs burn, you feel it burning. It was a very scary feeling. You wanted to get out of there as soon as you could,” Rutherford said.

“You couldn’t see the chlorine cloud through the fog. And all of a sudden what you’ve been doing all your life, breathing, you can’t and if you try to it hurts too much,” Ritchie said.

Their experiences can teach us a lot about what we can expect over the next several years in Graniteville.

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