Fifty years ago, on the heels of October’s 13-day long Cuban Missile Crisis, the residents of Cobb County faced the fear of yet another nuclear crisis. This time, however, the threat was not coming from Russia or the distant Caribbean island nation of Cuba, but a train wreck that happened right in their backyards.
A northbound freight train whose cargo included a classified shipment for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) jumped the tracks near Kennesaw at the U.S. 41 underpass in a violent pile-up at about 5 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Dec. 3, 1962. At the time of the wreck, the train was believed to be traveling at 38 to 40 miles an hour.
The Marietta Daily Journal reported that 24 of the 67-car Louisville and Nashville train, which was being hauled by three diesel engines, derailed with AEC guards onboard accompanying a secret nuclear shipment. Two of the five guards, riding in a passenger car in the middle of the train, suffered minor injuries.
Twisted, torn cars and rails were scattered for more than 300 yards along the tracks. An empty automobile-trailer car had crashed over an embankment and tore down telephone lines running next to the tracks, while a fuel car had torn open and spilled gasoline into the nearby woods. A flat-bed car carrying a heavy tractor-trailer, lashed down with chains, was found leaning at a 45-degree angle.
The two cars that carried the AEC’s secret nuclear materials, however, appeared to have escaped serious damage. Guards quickly sealed off the wreckage from onlookers as Cobb County police dealt with two minor car wrecks on U.S. 41, which passed within sight of the wreckage.
At first the media was kept away and the guards refused to allow pictures to be taken. After receiving word from their superiors, the guards allowed journalists to approach the scene. But, government agents continued to stand guard at the AEC cars and prevented folks from getting too close.
AEC spokesmen arriving on the scene following the derailment would not reveal what kind of nuclear material was being transported in the rail cars or whether the material included military weapons.
The secret nuclear material was speculated as having belonged to either the Air Force or the Army and possibly being transported from San Antonio, Texas to the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Some in the community were worried that the incident might be like the one in Florence, S.C., several years earlier where an Air Force bomber had accidentally dropped an unarmed nuclear bomb near that city. While the nuclear device did not detonate in that case – a charge of explosive contained inside the bomb did go off causing considerable damage.
Officials, however, told the local community that there were no bombs or other explosive materials aboard the wrecked train and that there was no danger of any leaked radioactivity.
Gene Blanc, the regional director of the AEC in Atlanta at the time, was quoted as saying that the AEC and federal government frequently shipped quantities of radioactive material to civilian institutions – including hospitals and schools, which were licensed by the AEC to handle the material. Marietta’s own Kennestone Hospital was one local institution that received material from the AEC for use in patient treatment.
Officials also said that typically when the military services transport nuclear material, they send along guards to watch over the materials with an escort car – which is often converted into living quarters featuring bunks and a kitchen.
The tracks were finally cleared of debris by railway workmen after more than 17 hours. Specially-equipped trains had to be brought in from Atlanta and Chattanooga to remove the wreckage from both ends of the scene.
Investigators said there was a possibility that an old, rusty section of rail might have snapped or twisted out of place causing the derailment. But, the railroad officially reported that the cause was undetermined.
A team of AEC investigators, however, were sent to the scene to probe the chance of sabotage.
Damon Poirier is the Newsroom Administrator for the Marietta Daily Journal.
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