Twenty-four years ago, the first of 7,000 bombs bound for the Vietnam War began exploding on a munitions train in a rail yard. The thunderous blasts were heard more than 40 miles away.
Nobody was killed. No one was even seriously injured. But the memory of that April day in 1973 and the 12 hours of explosions that rocked the area some 15 miles east of Sacramento, Calif., remains vivid.
The blasts came so fast and furiously that nobody knew whether all the bombs had gone off. It turns out that some were driven into the ground by the force of the blast, only to be discovered earlier this month.
Twice in the past two weeks, residents near the rail yard have been evacuated after workers had found leftover bombs.
Now, residents want an answer to one question: Are there any more bombs there?
“Our song here now is ‘Home, Home on the Artillery Range,”’ said Ed Hinkson, who, along with his wife, Denise, waited through the pre-dawn darkness Sunday as Army demolition experts detonated a cluster of eight 250-pound bombs less than 500 yards from their home.
“It was like an earthquake, especially numbers six and seven. They shook everything,” Denise Hinkson said. “Common sense tells you there are more of them out there.”
Officials agree and met Monday to devise a plan to find and remove any remaining bombs.
The explosives are remnants of that day when 21 freight cars carrying military bombs exploded in a spectacular chain reaction.
Rail officials said the explosions were caused by a “hot box” - an overheated wheel bearing - that set one of the boxcars on fire on the 6,000-foot descent from the Sierra Nevada.
The train had been parked in a huge switching yard for an hour when the first bomb exploded at 8:03 a.m. on April 28, 1973. The blast could be heard and felt 15 miles away in downtown Sacramento. It was followed by a second, even bigger explosion a few minutes later.
“I was in the service, but this was the closest I ever got to the war,” brakeman Allen Wetter said at the time.
Most of the blasts occurred over the next five hours, although single bombs and groups of bombs exploded periodically for 12 hours, leaving craters up to 40 feet deep.
Then, earlier this month, Union Pacific construction workers were ripping up old tracks when they discovered a cigar-shaped hunk of steel about 4 feet long.
“At first, they thought it was a refrigerator,” sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jim Cooper said.
But experts identified it as a 250-pound bomb, one of the Mark 81 general-purpose Navy bombs from that 1973 cargo.
About 400 people voluntarily left nearby housing developments, and the bomb was moved to an isolated part of the rail yard, buried and detonated.
On Saturday, construction workers found eight more bombs near where the first had been discovered.
By then, officials knew the drill. They moved the bombs, buried them and set them off by 3 a.m. Sunday.
Some residents, however, refused to leave.
“The first night, I left and spent the night at a motel,” said Robert Verdugo, who lives about a quarter-mile from the blast site. “But the second night, I stayed. We hoped the experts knew what they were doing.”