History comes alive

Original WNSL broadcast of 1969 train explosion found, preserved by radio engineer now available

Imagine it is the wee hours of Saturday morning, Jan. 25, 1969. Neil Armstrong is eight months from taking that one giant leap into history. Gas cost about 30 cents per gallon.

And the United States was on edge. The Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was in high gear. Students around the country would have drills in case of a nuclear attack.

Social media was the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club. Telephones were operated with dials with actual people sitting in rooms literally connecting wires. TV was still in its relative infancy.

One media stood out, though, and that was radio. In addition to the daily newspaper, the radio was the best source of information. One station in Jones County — WNSL — had been chosen by the government for a bomb shelter equipped to broadcast, using generator power, in the case of a Soviet attack.

It was because of that generator on the morning of Jan. 25 that the people of Laurel and Jones County were able to know what was going on. Inexplicably, explosions started rocking the area adjacent to what is now Susie B. Ruffin Avenue.

Soviet attack? Asteroid?

“I just started running,” a man’s voice can be heard on the WNSL broadcast from that morning. The interviewer: Laurel broadcasting icon Fats Harvison, who was standing in front of the post office relaying live coverage back to the station being powered by generator and manned by, among others, Herb Knotts, better known as Mel Morris, Granville Walters, Chris Stevens and Keith Godbold.

Thirteen tracks of live coverage exists, found more than 22 years ago on a dusty shelf by Glenn Musgrove, chief engineer for iHeart media in Hattiesburg, current owners of WNSL.

Musgrove began working for WNSL in 1994. While cleaning out a closet to make an office, he found a reel of tape.

“This would be the equivalent in today’s technology as an 8-track player,” Musgrove said.

On the reel was hand written, “Train wreck.”

Musgrove said with a high changeover rate in radio, it was shocking the reel of footage still existed. He said many times tapes would be reused and the original content lost forever.

Musgrove still has the original, and copies he had made on CD. He has spent his entire working life in radio — including broadcasting from Hattiesburg during Hurricane Katrina from a station with no antenna — and has great appreciation for what is on that reel.

Morris throughout implores the people of Laurel to stay off the phones. Emergency personnel from all over the state descended on Laurel when Southern Railway Train 154 wrecked.

Fifteen tank cars of liquefied petroleum gas derailed and exploded. “The train, with four diesel-electric locomotive units, 139 cars and caboose was moving northward at about 30 mph when the west wheel on the lead truck of the 62nd car in the train broke,” the official safety report read.

Fourteen cars behind the 62nd car derailed and it began a violent “eruption of fire and explosion.” Two people were killed and 33 hospitalized. Property damage was extensive.

“If you own a business in downtown, you might want to get down here,” reported Harvison, a longtime Laurel postal carrier. Most of the buildings in downtown had extensive damage, including blown out windows. “The damage will be terrific,” Harvison adds.

Morris chimes in that he hopes the good people of Laurel act in a manner as to not loot.

A reporter at the hospital interviewed a man identified as Joseph, who lived on Meridian Avenue. He lived just down the street from the explosion, took off running and didn’t stop until he got to the hospital — about a 2 1/2-mile run.

At the time, WNSL was an AM station and the footage is nearly crystal clear. Often it turned into people looking for loved ones, or checking in.

It also shows live reporting at its finest. Now, if a station’s antenna collapses, it can uplink to another tower with the punch of a button. But back then, things were so much different in terms of technology.

One thought on “History comes alive

  1. I was 6 years old & only a few hundred yards from ground zero. I obviously had no idea of the scope of this incident at that time. It’s truly amazing there was so little loss of life & so few serious injuries. I’ve never heard these clips-thanks for sharing.

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