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Daily Journal
     June 23, 2020      #12-175 KDJ

The day Crescent City became a fireball 

By Jeff Bonty

Editor's note: The story was changed to reflect the Kankakee Fire Chief was John Marquart.

Retired Kankakee firefighter Tom McVey was finishing his shift on Sunday, June 21, 1970.

It was Father’s Day.

He was planning on spending the day with his wife, Alice, and two children. She recalled they were going to take him out to celebrate Father’s Day. That would not happen.

An urgent call came over the fire two-way radio: “Crescent City is on fire! The town is blowing up!” the 84-year-old McVey recalled of the radio traffic.

The call came in at 7:30 a.m., 50 minutes after a train derailment occurred in the Iroquois County town of 550 people.

Earlier this week, McVey relived the day with fellow retirees Richard Guimond and Bill Foster.

They were among 11 Kankakee Fire Department members who made their way to Crescent City — located 20 miles south of Kankakee — after the derailment of 15 cars of a 108-car Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad Co. train heading east to Effner, Ind., at the state line.

Five of the 11 are still alive. The other living survivors are Fred Dattilo and Al May.

The 95-year-old Guimond has a detailed report that he’s used through years to tell the tale of the remarkable event, which the town celebrates every five years with the Fireball Festival. His report includes a slideshow.

Among the 15 derailed cars were nine tanker cars, each carrying 34,000 gallons of liquefied propane, a volatile chemical.

Another derailed car punctured one of the tankers, thus releasing the propane and igniting a fire.

‘Absolutely amazing’

At the time of the derailment, Richard McGill was driving his daughters, Diana, Pamela, Cheryl and Lisa, around town in their vehicle delivering newspapers. Cheryl, who was 11 at the time, had gotten out to deliver a paper when the train was passing through. She liked waving at the engineer.

The flame and heat from the blast caused Cheryl to suffer burns on her hands and ankles. A nylon scarf she was wearing melted. Her father was able to get the girls out of harm’s way and take Cheryl to the hospital in Watseka. Cheryl was the first of 67 injured that day.

There were no fatalities.

“It is absolutely amazing,” Foster said.

Crescent City firefighters under the command of Chief Orvel Carlson get the blaze under control.

A second tanker car exploded, hurling firefighters into the street. One of them was Carlson and he was injured.

Illinois State Trooper Sgt. Charles Struble was on scene and took command with firefighters stationed at the high school on the east side of the town. Meanwhile, residents of the town were evacuated.

According to an article published Sept. 1, 2010, by Robert Burke on firehouse.com, Struble also told firefighters to back off the fire. It is believed it saved lives that day.

Foster, now 79, was at home when he heard the call come over the radio about the fire. He went to the firehouse. Two hours after the first explosion, Foster and Dan Warren were heading to Crescent City in a Civil Defense vehicle.

Already on scene was Kankakee Fire Chief John Marquart and Lt. Jim West.

When the second blast occurred, Marquart, West and Armand Korstick, chief photographer for the Daily Journal, all were less than a block away from the tank car when it exploded. They were thrown to the ground by the force of the blast and later hospitalized for treatment of burns, cuts and bruises.

Guimond said Marquart was hospitalized for four months. He was thrown into the air and landed on a sand pile.

West was being tended to when a third of six blasts occurred. West spent a month in the hospital recovering from his burns, McVey said.

Historian and former Daily Journal reporter Jack Klasey recalled Korstick’s thoughts in a June 2017 article.

While being driven to Watseka for medical treatment, he remembered looking back toward Crescent City just as another of the tank cars exploded.

“It actually looked like an atomic bomb,” Korstick told a reporter. “This thing mushroomed. This was black as can be, but the whole center was red as it could be. It went up 10, 12 stories in the air.”

Things got crazy

McVey dodged injury after another explosion. He was among firefighters battling a fire in a hardware store. It is deemed unsafe and they retreat.

As McVey was leaving he saw a car close to the store.

“I went over to save it. I opened the door but it was a locked steering column. It was my luck because there was another explosion and the door blocked it,” McVey said.

“It was red everywhere and it kept getting hotter and hotter.”

McVey recalled witnessing one of the tank cars shooting off like a rocket coming to rest in a house after hitting a huge tree and another home.

“It was getting crazy,” he said.

Another tank car that exploded was found a quarter mile from the wreckage in a cornfield.

There were nearly 30 homes destroyed or damaged. Eighteen businesses, including the U.S. Post Office building, were destroyed.

The remaining fire was left to burn out, which happened two days later.

Guimond said the only other big fire he battled was in the early 1960s when Lassers Furniture caught fire and buildings in the block were damaged.

Crescent firefighter Bill Dirks recalled in Burke’s story on firehouse.com that he was asleep when the derailment occurred.

“It took 10 years off my life,” said Dirks, who had been on the department for three years at the time of the derailment.

Gov. Richard Ogilvie toured the wrecked town the day after the explosions. A World War II veteran, he said the scene reminded him of “towns I saw in France in 1944 and 1945 — it looks like a bomb hit the town.”

Fireball Festival postponed

Crescent City’s Fireball Festival will not be held in 2020.

“The committee has made the tough call to postpone this year’s celebration until 2021,” read a post on the event’s Facebook page.

Calling it a time “for people to come together to celebrate the resilience and spirit of our town,” organizers say it had become clear that the scale of celebration the community looks forward to every five years just isn’t possible this year.

The event is being postponed to 2021, set for Father’s Day weekend (June 18-20).

At that time, the festival will mark the 50th anniversary of the devastating train derailment/explosion.

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