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50 years later: Roseville rail yard explosion still leaves its mark

A photo from a 1973 Citrus Heights Firemen’s Association Bulletin includes the caption: “One of the closer shots, showing the better part of at least several wooden boxcars in the air. This was taken looking west from around Antelope and Saybrook. // Image courtesy, L. Fritz

By Mike Hazlip—
Early on a Saturday morning exactly 50 years ago, the quiet of the small towns of Citrus Heights, Antelope, and Roseville was shattered by a massive explosion coming from the nearby Roseville rail yard.

At about 8 a.m. on April 28, 1973, a train carrying bombs destined for Vietnam was making its way from Nevada’s Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot to ports in the Bay Area. The train had stopped at the Roseville rail yard after descending the Sierra Nevada mountains when an explosion started an hours-long chain reaction that destroyed the town of Antelope and damaged buildings for miles around.

Historical documents and news broadcasts from the time show no deaths were reported, although hundreds of people suffered injuries from the shrapnel and concussion of the blasts. In all, 18 boxcars were involved, sending fireball after fireball into the air and forcing the evacuation of residents in the sparsely populated areas of Citrus Heights, Roseville, and Antelope.

Citrus Heights Historical Society President Larry Fritz told The Sentinel that anyone alive at the time remembers where they were when the bombs went off that Saturday morning.

“I had no idea what it was, and the windows rattled,” Fritz said, noting he was 18 at the time. “I can’t remember how we found out that it was the bombs in the rail yard but word got out somehow.”

He also recalled seeing a heavy National Guard presence after the incident, which he said gave him “kind of an eerie feeling like we were in a war zone all of a sudden.”

In a 2017 interview with the local historical society, retired firefighter Donald Patterson recalled the event, saying that his father, Lloyd Patterson, was one of the first on the scene.

Lloyd Patterson was responsible for overseeing development of new fire stations, his son said, and was at the scene to inspect the newly completed fire station along Antelope Road when the call came in to respond to a smoldering boxcar at the rail yard.

As his father made his way to the rail yard with some others, the first bomb went off.

“Him and my father and the captain had gone back to the crossing and were walking down the tracks alongside the train when the first bomb went off,” Donald Patterson said. “They were knocked to the ground, it was bad. They went back to the crossing, but there was nothing they could do to get it stopped.”

Lloyd Patterson had just enough time to get the fire captain and his wife, who was late in her third trimester of pregnancy, out of the newly completed firehouse before the chain reaction started, Donald Patterson said.

“They went back to the firehouse and got his wife out,” Patterson said. “By the time the bombs really got going, it had destroyed the new firehouse.”

That firehouse stood completed for just one day before the blasts blew it away, Patterson said.

An archival news report from KCRA says the California National Guard was called up to assist police after reports of looting in the evacuated areas. About 30,000 people were evacuated in the aftermath of the explosions, according to the report. Mira Loma and the Placer County Fairgrounds served as evacuation shelters. Rusch Park served as a command center, with KCRA showing red cross trailers and military personnel at the location.

Fritz said he watched the continuing explosions on Saturday night while at a drive-in theater that was then near Greenback Lane and Fair Oaks Boulevard.

“When you faced the movie screen you were facing west, and I remember well, we were watching the movie, you could look just to the right of the movie screen every couple of minutes or so you see an orange flash from one of the bombs going off,” he said. “After a while, my friends and I realized that we weren’t really paying attention to the movie, we were all watching to see when the next bomb was going to explode.”

The last bombs went off sometime after 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29, Fritz said, more than 24 hours after the first explosion.

The Department of Transportation issued an accident report listing the official cause of the explosion as “undetermined,” but evidence points to a hot boxcar as a result of prolonged braking as the train descended the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The report cites an unnamed witness who was camping near Emigrant Gap, just over 60 miles east of Roseville. The witness was a college student studying engineering, and observed “sparks flying from the wheels of the train as a result of braking,” and a wheel rim on one of the bomb-carrying cars glowing red.

The train passed two hot box detectors, devices designed to alert crews to over-heating near the wheels, without incident, the report says. The detectors were functioning properly, but only scanned a portion of the wheel area.

The report also speculates that improperly manufactured bombs could have detonated, something the Navy denies in several statements included in the report.

In all, the report states approximately 5,500 buildings were damaged, with most of those being residential structures. Of the 32 structures in Antelope at the time, the report says nine were destroyed, 11 heavily damaged, and 12 slightly damaged.

The total cost was estimated to be $23 million, the report said. That amount would be more than $140 million in today’s dollars.

More than two decades after the incident, unexploded bombs were found buried at the rail yard during a 1997 construction project, according to reports. More than eight additional bombs were uncovered during excavation of the site, the Associated Press reports.

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