40 years later, witnesses recall dramatic railyard explosions

04/27/2013 12:00 AM

04/28/2013 11:42 AM

Scott Nutter was there as a 13-year-old boy, sleeping soundly on a Saturday like many a teenager when his parents' Antelope home was rocked by tremendous explosions.

Dick Schmidt, a Sacramento Bee photographer, was initially not there, but once he heard of the explosions he drove toward them.

That was 40 years ago Sunday. On April 28, 1973, in the Southern Pacific Railroad yard in Antelope, thousands of bombs headed for the Vietnam War on 18 rail cars blew up.

Buildings were destroyed and people were injured in the series of shattering explosions that began about 8 a.m.

The blasts continued through the following day.

"One explosion threw me out of bed onto the floor," said Phoebe Astill, curator of the Roseville Carnegie Museum, which has one of the split-open bombs in its collection. "I thought an airplane headed to McClellan Air Force Base had crashed."

Astill calls it a traumatic event in Roseville's history. Here are firsthand remembrances of the momentous day from Nutter, who is retired from the mortgage industry, and Schmidt, who is retired from The Bee.

SCOTT NUTTER

"I was a typical 13-year-old boy on that Saturday morning – asleep.

My mom was up cleaning the house early as she always did on Saturdays. My dad was up as well. As he heard the bombs going off, he told my mom, 'If I was back in WWII, I'd swear those were bombs.'

Then, every item in our cupboards – plates, cans, glasses – went flying across the room. The force was such that the windows facing south imploded.

I was now awake. 'Get out of the house!' my Dad screamed.

I scrambled outside and went around to the front of the house to see a huge mushroom cloud.

We got into the car as fast as possible. My mom, the bookkeeper at the Roseville Press Tribune, had keys to the office, so that is where we went.

Unlike today when information is so prevalent, we sat by the AP wire machine trying to get info. We also had access to some scanners.

The owner of the Press Tribune was in Los Angeles. She arranged for us to stay at her house that night.

The next day, Sunday, we went to see if we had a house standing anymore. After some talking, we were let through a roadblock.

Our house survived. Other homes had either been flattened or burned. A large spring from a railroad car that exploded a little over a quarter mile away had landed on the hood of one of our cars at the house.

I told my dad, 'Cool, I want this.' He said, 'Go ahead, pick it up.' I could not even budge it. It was that heavy.

Though still intact, the concussion of the blast shattered all of the rafters in the house. The house ended up being condemned and it was bulldozed in the months afterward.

The railroad, Southern Pacific, was extremely fair. This was in a time before ATMs. And banks were closed on weekends. We were able to get a stipend from SP that very weekend for living expenses. They compensated us for damages in a few weeks.

The money they gave us was more than we could have gotten in sale for the house and 10 acres. Many families spent years in litigation.

I rarely go out there to the old property anymore. The land around it has been developed with tract housing.

April 28, 1973, was the luckiest day of my life. None of my family was hurt, and it allowed me to move into town and make new friends."

DICK SCHMIDT

"I was working an early shift on Saturday morning and en route to Cal Expo to cover an event in the horse arena when I heard something on the police scanner about reports of explosions in the Roseville area. Then I turned the car radio to KFBK, where news breaks said the station was receiving phoned-in reports of explosions or maybe an earthquake.

I decided to drive toward Roseville on speculation. On the way, I heard more radio reports about a train carrying bombs that was on fire at the Southern Pacific's switchyard.

Nearing the area on I-80, I could see dark smoke in the sky and took the Antelope Road exit.

I pulled over and, afraid I would miss something, grabbed just one camera without a motor drive, and a 200 mm lens. I ran about a quarter mile to a rise in an open field, which these days is covered with homes.

From there, I had a view of the Antelope switchyard a few hundred yards away, a good vantage point for photos.

I stood for a while watching the smoke rise and bombs explode before a huge fireball rose into the sky. Individual bombs exploding were not that distinctive at this distance, just quick flashes in lots of dark smoke.

But this fireball was different. It was amazingly large and delivered a tremendous shock wave at me.

On seeing the first of these, I overreacted, and shot too early. By the time I advanced the film for a second try, the mushroom fireball had turned to lingering smoke.

A bit later, when the next car exploded, I knew a mushroom cloud would build upward and higher like the one I miscalculated earlier.

This time I exercised old-fashioned photographic discipline. I didn't have a motor drive to simply make many pictures quickly so I waited a couple seconds for it to build to its peak. My patience paid off and I got my shot – at least I thought I did.

After I got that shot, I hurriedly tried a second shot, advancing the film manually. However, I failed to capture much.

I was hopeful, however, that I had made a good picture. I would not know for sure until I got back to the photo lab and developed the film.

I stayed for awhile at the site. As explosions occurred, I'd occasionally hear things whizzing and whistling above. After being there for close to an hour, law enforcement ordered me and all the onlookers – some with children – to over a mile away from the tracks.

The photo ran on front pages of Sunday morning newspapers across the country: I have clips with the shot from the San Francisco Examiner, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and the Portland Oregonian.

With the intense focus of the Watergate scandal gripping the nation, even the Washington Post used the photo on its front page."

Call The Bee's Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079. Follow him on Twitter @Lindelofnews.

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