Gate City’s Train Tragedy of 1940

gatecitytrainwreck2A mysterious collision occurred in Gate City, Virginia, on January 27, 1940. The victims’ families were never given reason as to why the tragedy happened, and the unknown lingers even today.


The Frigid Day

It was a typical work day for Clarence Gobble. His son, Hagan, as well as friend Carter Suttle, rode with him. They made a gas delivery in a truck owned by Sinclair Refining. Sinclair Refining was an agency owned by J.R. Addington. Gobble wasn’t a full-time employee of the company, but helped when needed. The devastating cold over the region meant people were in dire need of gas and oil. Even during the days, temperatures lingered around zero.

Both Gobble and the Southern Railway train traveled eastward. The freight train carried numerous cars loaded with coal. It was 10 am. The weather was frigid. Six inches of snow had fallen, but the morning was clear.


The Mystery

It was never established why a large gas truck, with three occupants inside, failed to see or hear the train when they were so close. Some theorized that ice had reformed on the windshield of the vehicle, but no guess was made as to how they couldn’t hear it. Did they believe they could outrun it? Researchers will never know what caused them to ignore the approaching coal train.

The truck exploded as soon as the train made impact. The occupants were thrown, but the tank burst and scattered flammable oil and gas in a 25-feet circumference. Three of the coal cars caught fire due to the gasoline from the truck. The train engine was damaged. The burning cars were unhooked from the rest of the train and rushed to a water tank to be extinguished and inspected. Fires continued to rage as rescuers attempted to work. One compartment in the truck sent flames and smoke 200-feet above.

The train needed a mile to completely stop. Brakeman C. H. Blevins leapt from the train, and was one of the first to reach the scene. He suffered first- and second-degree burns on his hands and face when he attempted to help the men. Dr. Fred. G. McConnell later treated him, and placed him on home rest while he healed. Clifford Davidson, the Town Sergeant, helped remove the bodies from the burning wreckage. By that point, debris had traveled around 100 feet down the track.


A Gruesome Scene

All three victims were incinerated. Gasoline had soaked their clothing. Davidson reported that all victims were engulfed by the time he arrived. Carter and Hagan were lifeless, but Clarence actually attempted to crawl his way out of the wreckage. The lower portion of his body was “burned away.”

Rescuers rushed to help him clear the debris, although despite his agony, he still clung to life. He begged those in attendance to do something about his legs. Snow was used to extinguish the flames on his body. His right foot was still in his boot inside the wreckage. Another shoe, believed to belong to Suttle, was found on the outside rail of the track. Suttle was the son of carpenter M.M. Suttle.

Rescuers put chains around the two corpses to drag them free of the flaming wreckage. The McConnell Funeral Home took the bodies of the deceased for burial preparation. Nearly 60 people came to help, but first responders warned them away. There was still a chance the tank could explode.

Clarence was taken to the Kingsport hospital in Berry Howard’s car. Howard later said Clarence didn’t lose consciousness despite his anguish. He survived four grueling hours of suffering before he passed away.

The trio had funeral services together at the Southern Street Methodist Church. They were buried in Holston View Cemetery, on the same day.


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