Fire on the MOPac: The 1959 Ouachita Train Derailment Disaster

This was written in 2012 for Louisiana Road Trips Magazine:

The night of January 22, 1959 was cold with fair skies.  Temperatures were in the 20’s.  Engineer C.L. Thomas was taking a one hundred thirty-nine car Missouri Pacific train from Alexandria to St. Louis.  On board was cotton, pulpwood and several tanks of chemicals such as butadiene and propylene.  By 11 pm. that night the train had made it to southern Ouachita Parish.

            Two deputies were on patrol on Hwy. 165 South that night: W.E. Bowman and Amos Standfield.  Glancing over at the train, one of the deputies noticed that a firebox on one wheel was red hot and throwing sparks.  The Deputies raced to the front engine with lights flashing to try to get Engineer Thomas’ attention.  Thomas returned the signal, sounded the whistle several times and began to slow down.  The Deputies then slowed down to fall back and check the box again.  Then disaster struck. 

            As the train reached north of the Prairie Rd. intersection, the car with the overheated hotbox jumped the tracks taking thirty-two cars and a section of the track with it in a sheet of fire.  The deputies claimed the cars came off like folding matchsticks.  Four fire trucks from Monroe were called to put out the blaze. Law enforcement shut down that section of Hwy. 165.   All night the fires blazed and minor explosions were heard from the exploding propane tanks.  By daybreak only one car remained burning.

            Many people came from miles around to see the destruction.  Law enforcement had a tough time keeping the crowds back while crews battled the blaze.  When night came, the fire seemed to be well under control.  This wouldn’t last very long.  At approximately 7:30 that night a plane flying above Marshall, TX one hundred fifty miles away saw an explosion in the direction of Monroe.  Rayville residents saw the flash in the sky and Monroe heard a distant roar.  Sparks had ignited a leaking tank.  Three people:  O.C. Mitchell of Lake Village, AR, Paul Tyson of Monroe and Tom Hill of Montrose, AR were instantly killed.  Fifty-five people were wounded, thirty of them were spectators. 

Witnesses to the explosion described a wall of fire passing over their heads, a blinding flash and a deafening roar.  The exploding tank car spewing fire landed 200 feet away over the highway and into the nearby cotton field.  Men who were caught in the fire ran desperately through the cotton fields or for ditches to put out the flames on their clothes.  The ditches were not full of water.  Acid had flowed from the damaged tank cars, mixed with water used to put out the fires and then collected in the ditches.  Ambulance attendants described the acid dripping off the agonized wounded eating holes in their vehicles.  All of the survivors were carried to St. Francis or Conway Hospital.  Hundreds lined up to donate blood for the wounded. 

On January 24th, demolition experts were called in from Barksdale Air Force Base to safely explode the remaining tanks.  Forty pounds of explosives were placed under two cars.  At 5:06 pm they were safely exploded and the cleanup began.  Five more men over the coming days would die from their injuries:  Cosby O. Prestage of Monroe, Charles Roy Barnes of McGehee, AR, Woodrow Mooney of Little Rock, AR, Bobby Smith of Bonita, LA and Willie Frye of Gould, AR.  Missouri Pacific Railroad officials called it “The worst disaster of its type in the company’s history.”  It would take months to finish the cleanup.  You will find no signs of the explosion in that area today.  Green grass and crops now grow where men lost their lives.  They say, “Time heals all wounds.”  I would add “but some scars remain.”

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