A 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 workday 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. J.R. Addington owned Sinclair Refining. Gobble wasn’t a full-time employee, 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.
The gas truck and the Southern Railway train both traveled eastward. The freight train carried numerous cars loaded with coal. It was 10:00 am. The weather was frigid. Six inches of snow had fallen that night, but the morning was clear.
It was never established why a large gas truck, with three occupants, failed to see or hear the train when they were so close. Some theorized ice formed on the vehicle’s windshield, but no guess was made as to how they couldn’t hear a roaring train. Perhaps the vehicle’s occupants believed there was enough time to outrun the locomotive. Whatever the reason, it was a fatal mistake.
The truck exploded as soon as the train made impact. The truck’s occupants were thrown. The gas tank burst and scattered flammable oil and gas in a 25-feet circumference. Three of the train’s coal cars caught fire due to gasoline from the truck. The train engine was damaged, but not as severely as the burning cargo cars. Rescue workers unhooked the engine and rushed it to a water tank to be extinguished. Fires continued to rage as rescuers attempted to work. One of the truck’s compartments sent flames and smoke 200 feet above.
Because of the ice, the train couldn’t come to a complete stop until it was a mile from the accident. C.H. Blevins, brakeman, leapt from the train. He was one of the first to reach the scene. He suffered first- and second-degree burns on his hands and face from his attempt to help the burning 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
The three victims had been incinerated in the wreck. Gasoline soaked their clothing and caught fire. Davidson reported all victims were immolated 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 deceased corpses to drag them free of the flames. The McConnell Funeral Home took the bodies of the deceased for burial preparation. Nearly sixty civilians came to help, but first responders warned them away. There was still a chance the tank could explode.
Berry Howard rushed Clarence to the Kingsport hospital. Howard later said Clarence didn’t lose consciousness despite his anguish. He survived four grueling hours before he passed away.
The trio had funeral services together at the Southern Street Methodist Church. They were buried on the same day, in Holston View Cemetery.