February 12th, 2024 marked 50 years since the derailment of a Delaware and Hudson train in Emmons, New York. The event is considered one of the worst railroad disasters in New York State History.

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In a post to a local Facebook group entitled If You Grew Up In Oneonta NY, You May Remember..., James Close recounted his memories of the derailment, as he was one of a few individuals that was on the scene from beginning to end.

Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York via Facebook
Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York via Facebook
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At the time, Close was on a year long break from college, living at home and living next door to what was the Evening Inn. On the morning of February 12, 1974, he looked out the window and saw smoke towards the railroad tracks. He hitched a ride with his mother to the site, and proceeded to watch events unfold.

From a small hill overlooking the derailment, he observed a tanker car on fire, as well as the Oneonta Fire Department pull water from the Susquehanna River in an effort to cool the scorching metal down. Soon, other lookers joined Close on the hill. At that point in time they did not feel like there was any danger.

That was about to change.

Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York
Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York via Facebook
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Feeling suddenly uneasy, Close moved away from the wreckage, closer to Route 7. He estimates that he was 600 or so feet away. As he describes it, Hell arrived without warning: "With a strange "PFFFFFFFFFFFT" and a palpable burst of heat, the derailment scene was suddenly and instantaneously enveloped in a massive fireball that evoked nothing less than a memory of Hiroshima, if you can possibly imagine an A-bomb dropped on Emmons instead of Japan: 30,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) - the entire contents of that tank car - ignited, enveloping everyone and everything that was within at least 300 feet." The tanker contained liquid propane gas.

In the time of a heartbeat, a simple derailment turned into a major disaster. Seven of the tanker cars involved in the derailment exploded one by one, in 45 minute intervals. Close estimates that 50 local firefighters were caught in the fireball. Serious injuries including the loss of an arm, a leg, and numerous serious burns were reported. Close notes that the final tanker to explode lit up the entire valley, like a Fourth of July fireworks finale. The incident wound up on national news broadcasts.

Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York via Facebook
Otsego County Office of Emergency Services - Otsego County, New York via Facebook
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Because of this incident's investigation, the NTSB cited faulty hardware that connected the rail cars, and brought scrutiny to the transportation of LPG gas. One NTSB recommendation that was adopted requires cars carrying hazardous materials be spaced out lessening the likelihood that they all derail together.

Close has reached out to both the Town of Milford and the Town of Oneonta to see if they'd put up a historical marker as a permanent reminder of the event, but has yet to hear back from either town.

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