I hired out in 1944 with the Santa Fe as an agent/operator apprentice and in August was assigned to the agent/operator pool. In about a year I was 26th up from the bottom of the list, so I was able to successfully bid on some openings.
One night in about 1946, I was working relief on second trick (4 p.m.-midnight) at East Tower in Amarillo, Texas. Located about a mile east of the Santa Fe station at the lower end of the business district, East Tower protected the crossings of the Fort Worth & Denver and the Rock Island with Santa Fe’s main line. East had no communication with the FW&D or RI dispatchers, so approaching trains simply called for clearance by locomotive whistle signals.
The track layout was such that an approaching train in either direction on any of the three roads could be easily seen, so clearance was normally granted before the train was close enough to request the clearance. The interlocking plant was normally aligned for the Santa Fe, so the job consisted of reporting the passing of eastbound trains to the dispatcher. That was his way of knowing that an eastbound had entered his dispatching district, and of keeping a record of all passing Santa Fe trains. There was no train-order function at the tower as the Santa Fe was double track to Pampa, 55 miles to the east.
Near the end of my trick on the night in question, I saw the headlight of a westbound Santa Fe train in the distance. I figured it to be No. 1, the Scout, which was due in Amarillo about 11 p.m., so I made sure the signals were cleared for the crossing. It wasn’t long before I heard the sound of a Rock Island 2-8-2, throttle back, leaving the yard with a train. It didn’t take much time for me to start getting anxious, as this train was getting closer and closer to the crossing, with the throttle still wide open. I thought to myself, “He has a red signal, why isn’t he observing it?”
I checked the levers on the interlocking machine to be sure the derail device was in place. Meanwhile, the Scout was fast approaching the crossing, and so was the Rock Island train, its throttle still wide open. In less than a minute, just as the Scout blocked my view as it passed the tower I saw sparks fly as the Rock Island locomotive hit the dirt — with throttle still wide open. The shower of sparks filled the night air much like sparks would come from a grinding wheel on metal. If that derail had not been there, the Rock Island train would have hit the Scout just behind its locomotive’s tender, and East Tower would have been included in the wreckage.
You talk about a sigh of relief — seeing those sparks was indeed good for my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I was plenty concerned that something was not right. The entire event occurred in less than 5 minutes, but it was a very long 5 minutes! I didn’t panic, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frightened! And I expect the Rock Island engine crew experienced the jolt of their lives as their engine hit the dirt.
After I was relieved at midnight, I went out to the scene, and I stopped by again the next afternoon before going on duty. And as I remember, that Rock Island Mikado — No. 2682 — was every bit as big and impressive as were our Santa Fe 4000-class heavy Mikes. The engine was still there, intact with its tender, which remained upright although the engine was listing a little. I was told that attempts had been made to rerail the engine and tender using two yard switchers, but with no success, and that heavy wrecking equipment was being brought in.
I didn’t go back again, as my two-day relief tour was up, so I don’t know how long it took to reopen the line. A couple of weeks later, a hearing was conducted at the Rock Island offices. The Santa Fe trainmaster and I were there, but more or less in a passive role. We answered a few questions, and that was about it.
The question of clearance was cut and dried. Once a route was cleared on the interlocking machine, to take it away required the clear signal to be reset, after which the route remained in a locked status for 4 minutes before the interlocking machine was internally reset. So, the only questions were whether the interlocking machine was working properly (I never heard it wasn’t) and why the crew ignored the red signal.
I never heard the answer to that, either.