The Mitchell County, N.C., mountains were dark and quiet on a Sunday morning 41 years ago when the clock landed on 1:15 a.m.
But the night was shattered by light at that moment when two Clinchfield Railroad trains collided head-on, causing a flash of flames and a terrible accident that killed two trainmen.
Unicoi resident Jack Young, a Mitchell County Sheriff’s deputy at the time, responded to the scene, along with Sheriff Brownlow Moffit and fellow Deputy Larry Cox. Young, now 76, reminisced about the accident recently when he brought some old photos of the crash to the Johnson City Press.
“I was 35 at the time,” Young said. “We got a call that two trains had hit. One was carrying coal; the other was empty. It was in an open, level area along the river, and I remember it was very, very dark.”
The trains were traveling toward each other about 10 miles north of Burnsville and 6 miles south of Bakersville on tracks that run parallel to the Toe River. The northbound train was an Erwin freight train. The southbound train was a coal carrier headed for Spartanburg, S.C., and it was pulling 135 cars and five diesel units plus three pusher units.
“As I remember, one train went off onto a sidetrack, and I believe it did so to allow the other train to pass,” Young said. “But the train that pulled off never stopped. It ran back up onto the main track and the two hit head on.”
It was Oct. 25, 1970.
Engineer J.B. (Jake) Hartsell, of Erwin, and brakeman J.M. Eller, of Johnson City, who both were on the northbound train, were killed.
Engineer Frank Duncan, of Erwin, and brakeman M.R. Leonard, of Carter County, were on the southbound train and managed to jump clear of the crash and were not seriously hurt. J.L. Masters, conductor on the southbound train, also suffered no serious injuries.
Grady Briggs was the conductor on the northbound train, and L.L. Stallard was conductor of a pusher unit on the southbound train. Both men were from Erwin, and both were uninjured.
Young recalled that the engines on both trains had burst into flames, and as a result, ignited diesel fuel burned portions of the ground around the area, according to Clinchfield officials who later investigated the scene. The accident was the first involving fatalities since the company switched to diesel engines from the old steam locomotives.
“They were only running 12 to 15 mph,” Young said. “But you can’t imagine the amount of damage that can be done. Everything was just destroyed.”
Nine diesel units lay twisted and scattered in the wreckage, and it was not readily apparent which units belonged to which train, according to the company report. The wreckage covered an area of about 700 yards and caused Clinchfield’s main line to be closed soon after the crash was reported.
A special passenger train carrying 600 passengers had to be turned back near Spruce Pine, and many other trains had to be rerouted until the wreckage could be cleared away — a task that officials said took nearly two days.
Young remembers the crash site as being heavily wooded. He said he remembers one of the engines’ noses being planted in the ground and that several cars were derailed. Others remained on the tracks but their wheels had come off the railing. The under-rigging on a few cars was completely ripped away, an image Young said he found hard to believe.
Clinchfield officials said the intense fire from the initial burst of flame had taken the numbers and identification off the cars that lay pitched like toys around the side of the mountain. Workers finally managed to lift what was left of the crumpled cars onto flat cars with an enormous crane. They also removed coal cars that had remained intact, uprooted tracks and pieces from the freight cars that had been piled up along the wreckage area.
“I can remember how they did that,” Young said. “I remember several cranes and flatbed trucks. It was a miracle anyone survived.”