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Train explosion 38 years later

Personal memories live on among some Roseville residents
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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The curator of the Carnegie Museum spends her days keeping the history of Roseville alive.

And Phoebe Astill has no problem recalling April 28, 1973, a day that shaped the modern history of this city. On that day, an ammunition train explosion destroyed much of the Roseville rail yard and sent debris flying for miles into surrounding neighborhoods.

“I remember it very well,” Astill said. “It was a very rude awakening. I was in bed and it threw me out of bed onto the floor.”

Thirty-eight years later, the episode lives on with a presentation about “The Day Roseville Will Never Forget,” hosted by the Roseville Historical Society on Friday, April 29, at Veterans Memorial Hall.

The event serves as the group’s first fundraiser of the year. The society, with 115 members, relies on membership dues and donations to stay afloat.

During the program, retired Southern Pacific Conductor Walt Wilson will present photos and eyewitness accounts of the train explosion.

“There’s a lot of personal information,” Wilson said. “About 20 minutes for an introduction and a 20-minute slide presentation.”

The self-described “history nut” and Auburn resident began researching the explosion about two years ago. He interviewed people who lived in the area at the time and obtained a copy of the Federal Railroad Administration report, giving him more details.

Wilson worked for Southern Pacific for 40 years and retired in 2002. He transferred from Los Angeles to northern California in 1978.

“I started working with these people never knowing they were involved with train explosions,” Wilson said.

On that fateful day in 1973, the train had 103 cars — 21 of which contained bombs — and arrived at the Antelope receiving yards in Roseville at 6:30 a.m. About 300 bombs per car, or 7,000 total, were being transported over Donner Summit on their way to the Navy Depot in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At 8:04 a.m., the bombs started exploding after a boxcar caught fire. The massive explosions created huge plumes of smoke, destroyed buildings, mangled rail sections and left huge craters in the ground. Windows were shattered four miles away.

Thousands of people gathered on nearby roads and Interstate 80 to watch. Around 50 people were injured but no deaths occurred.

“A girl got her eye put out, that was the most severe thing,” Wilson said. “They were really, really lucky.”

Astill lived across from the Placer County Fairgrounds, which was a couple miles from the explosion. When she heard the blasts, she thought an airplane might have crashed as it attempted to land at McClellan Air Force Base. She rushed outside but didn’t see anything, and returned to her house. Then another explosion occurred.

“I had a small son so I didn’t do a lot of running around trying to see what was going on,” Astill said.

Her husband was at Odd Fellows Hall in Roseville’s Historic Old Town for a benefit breakfast. As he stood in front of a large commercial stove flipping pancakes, a large detonation hit and he was thrown a few feet away.

Police officers evacuated people to the fairgrounds. Astill and her husband remained there for a while but then returned home to watch the television news. Bombs continued exploding throughout the afternoon. The last two blasts occurred the next day.

Over the next few weeks, clean-up efforts took place.

“There was a lot of work ahead for (some residents) to get their houses together or find a new place to live because some houses were destroyed,” Astill said.

She had a friend who lived in Antelope about one-eighth of a mile from the railroad tracks. The family had to tear down their house because it was so badly damaged. The floors looked like a roller coaster and doors shifted to an angle.

“It’s one of our milestones we’ve gone through, that we hopefully never have to go through again,” Astill said.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com.

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“The Day Roseville Will Never Forget,” spaghetti dinner and program

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 29

Where: Veterans Memorial Hall, 110 Park Drive in Roseville

Cost: $15 per person, $25 per couple, $5 for children under 12

Info: Mail checks payable to Roseville Historical Society, 557 Lincoln St. Roseville, CA 95678. For more information, call (916) 773-3003 or visit www.rosevillehistorical.org.

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Residents remember
The following comments about the 1973 train explosion were posted on the Press Tribune’s website and Facebook page.

Wheeves wrote: “I remember my brother being surprised by the huge boom and he spilled his Trix into my church shoes. I was mad then but now it’s just funny. I don’t even remember the blasts but my mama would not let us out to play all day.

Tom Watson wrote: “I remember it well.”

Jim Brown wrote: “I remember my mom coming into my bedroom on that Saturday morning and telling me to get up as we were told by the news media that mandatory evacuations could be ordered by the police department. Later in the day, I made my way over to the Auburn Boulevard overpass to see the plumes of smoke coming up where the railroad yard was located. One thing that was really erry that day was how the streets in Roseville were totally empty and quiet. It could have easily been scripted for a “Twilight Zone” episode.