On April 28, 1973, military bombs which were being transported by train began exploding near the Southern Pacific yard in Roseville. It seemed to go on forever, with no more explanation than that. Clouds of smoke and fire could be seen reaching 3,000 feet into the sky. Debris, consisting of parts of bombs and railroad cars, was spewed all over the area.
Before it was over, the small town of Antelope, near the Roseville rail yard, was decimated. Its landmark Grange Hall, as well as its firehouse, post office and general store, were demolished. Craters, up to 40 feet in depth, stood in their place. Many homes were destroyed as well.
The event was the lead story in all the regional newspapers, television, and radio news stories for weeks. The effects were disastrous, but the cause remained undetermined.
A group of Roseville citizens brought a motion for preliminary injunction to enjoin the transportation of triitonol bombs by the United States through the Southern Pacific rail yards in Roseville. After a lengthy hearing, United States District Judge Thomas J. MacBride denied the motion.
There then followed what was to become the lengthiest trial in the history of the federal court in the Eastern District of California. The non-jury trial began on November 7, 1977. The primary issue in the first phase was the cause of the explosion. The evidence established that the initial fire probably resulted from a dragging brake shoe on one of the DODX boxcars. Was it the wrong kind of brake shoe? Who installed it? Brake shoes are changed all the time. Who was responsible for this one? Some of the boxcars did not have the government mandated spark shields in their undercarriages. Did that contribute to the initial fire? These were questions that were never satisfactorily answered.
Sitting through month after month of testimony, Judge MacBride was called upon to ferret through volumes of documents and to resolve countless factual and legal disputes, some of which he addressed in four published decisions. He never had to decide the ultimate question of liability, though, nor did he ever get to the second phase of the trial, which was to involve the determination of damages, because in January of 1980, in the middle of the trial, the case quietly settled.
It was a global settlement, involving payment of a total sum in excess of $15 million, part coming from the government, part from the Southern Pacific, and part from other collateral defendants, such as Westinghouse and Griffin Wheel. Coming after more than two years of trial, the settlement would best be described as an anti-climax.
The Roseville explosion forever changed the lives of the residents of Antelope and permanently left its mark in the history of our community. The litigation that arose out of it also dramatically affected the lives of all of those involved. At the time, it was the longest trial in the history of our court. In hindsight, the case appears to have been one that should have settled much earlier, before the unprecedented expenditure of such judicial time and resources, but sometimes that just isnít possible.
On November 5, 1015, the Eastern District Historical Society sponsored a panel discussion on that historic trial. The panelists, moderated by Judge William Shubb, included attorneys who handled trial and a significant witness whose testimony shaped the way the case proceeded. Please enjoy the video of that presentation above.
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