Bombs On Board: The 1969 Hanover-Linden Freight Train Explosion.
Hanover is a city of 534049 people (as of December 2020) in central Germany, located 135km/84mi south of Hamburg and 58km/36mi west of Brunswick (“Braunschweig”) (both measurements in linear distance).
Being the capital of the federal state of Lower Saxony the city is a major traffic hub, including an airport and several train stations for passenger and freight services. Located in the southwestern district of Linden-Limmer is Hannover-Linden station, which connects to the Hanover freight bypass railway. Opened in 1909 the bypass was constructed to keep the countless freight trains out of downtown Hanover and free up the main station for more passenger trains. The electrified double-track line circumnavigates Hanover to the south, crossing through the western and southern outskirts on a 43.3km/26.9mi long route.
The train involved
Dg 57767 was a mixed freight train consisting of over 40 (I couldn’t find an exact number) 2-axle freight cars travelling westbound through Lower Saxony. The cars number 32–35 belonged to the Belgian SNCB, simple two-axle boxcars used for various loads on pallets or in bags. Until the widespread introduction of shipping containers cars like these were the backbone of freight services on railways.
The four cars were loaded with ammunition for the German army, each one carrying 216 projectiles for the M107 tank, each one 175mm in diameter and weighing 43.2kg/95lb with 6.9kg/15lb of TNT in them. The cars looked largely like any other freight car of their type, only a small orange sheet (100x200mm) attached to the outside warned of explosive cargo.
On the 22nd of June at around 7:45am Dg 57767 is travelling westbound on the Hanover freight bypass railway carrying various cargo, including almost 1000 projectiles for a German Army tank. The ammunition is going from the Saarland, a federal state in the southwest of Germany, to a training exercise in England. At the same time, northwest of the train in the Linden-Limmer district the firemen of fire station 4 are coming together for the daily morning assembly. Among them are Mr. Krohn (now 82 years old) and his younger colleague Mr. Hermann. Krohn is meant to ride on the water tender truck (think tanker truck, but with water/foam for firefighting), but because Hermann hasn’t responded to any emergencies yet their supervisor asks Krohn to let Hermann have his spot instead. With Hermann feeling up for the task Krohn steps down from the role for the shift.
Meanwhile Dg 57767 has reached the southern edge of Hanover, travelling through the Wülfel district. A railway employee sees the train go by and spots sparks flying off car 35’s underpinnings, suspecting a stuck brake. As the train slowly travels through Hanover more and more witnesses confirm the sighting. Eventually, the decision is made to stop the train at Linden’s freight yard for an inspection. Working there as the train rolls in is 26 years old Mr. Liedtke. He sees the train stop, and flames come out from under the 35th car. His coworker calls the fire department, a call going to fire station 4, reporting a freight car on fire. Most firefighters, including Mr. Hermann, respond to the nearby freight yard, while Mr. Krohn remains at the fire station. Liedtke grabs a fire extinguisher and runs towards the freight car, a few meters away he sees the sheet warning of explosive cargo. He manages to uncouple the 35th and following cars, tells the train driver to move the train. At the same moment the fire trucks are arriving at the site, it’s 8:09am. Liedtke starts running towards the firemen, when the freight car blows up. The freight car largely ceases to exist, leaving a crater 15m/49ft in diameter. Most of the firetrucks are riddled with shrapnel and the command vehicle, a normal car, is thrown through the air. Mr. Hermann and Mr. Liedtke don’t stand a chance to survive, along with another 7 firemen and 3 railway employees.
A second group of firefighters, arriving minutes after the blast, is met with a horrific sight. A massive field of debris covers the area surrounding the stopped (and still burning) freight train, the steel rails have been bent like cooked spaghetti. Another train loaded with cars falls over, in total over 70 train cars are damaged. The warehouse the firetrucks pulled around to reach the train no longer has a roof or platform-side wall, only one truck who was behind the brick building isn’t full of holes. Two firemen of the first group survive, one because he ducked behind the engine block to change from normal shoes to the firefighting boots, another picked something up off the ground inside another truck, moving his head into cover. 40 people are injured up to 200m/655ft away. The explosion turned gravel, pieces of the freight car and the shrapnel of the exploded cargo itself into countless deadly projectiles.
Krohn heard the explosion at the fire station, the shockwave blew the windows out and covered the yard in shards and debris. The building is under 1km from the site, windows break and debris is later found 3km away. A big cloud of smoke hangs over the area. At the site the firefighters have to help their colleagues before fighting the fire, some find themselves barely able to function, suffering traumatic memories to the war that ended less than 30 years ago. The victims are near-impossible to identify, allegedly some were only identified by seeing who didn’t report back or was identified at the hospital.
Krohn later recalls “running on autopilot” that day when he went to the site, but breaking down the next day, at home. Even today he can still list all the firemen who died, he was friends with all of them. In 2019 he gives an interview to a local TV-station, still visibly moved by the events 50 years ago.
The fire is extinguished over the course of the day, the fact that Mr. Liedtke managed to separate the burning car from the forward 34 cars and got the driver to move greatly reduced the severity of the blast and the aftermath. The damage, medical bills excluded, is quoted at 40 Million DM (20.45 million Euros/24.79 million USD). Most of the freight yard has to be more or less rebuilt. Overhead wires, tracks, even foundations need replacing. The cause of the blast is difficult to track down, the ammunition was stored correctly, it can’t have gone off at random. And the train itself is little help, the forward part is largely intact while the car within which the explosion happened has been completely destroyed, along with those behind it.
A few days after the accident a funeral is held for the victims, publicly with state honors. The caskets are lined up on the steps in front of city hall, in a sea of flowers. Hundreds of people head to the market place out front, even more line the route of the procession. Several German fire departments send representatives, providing a honor guard.
Based off the statements from witnesses investigators eventually suspect a stuck brake, questioning the same witnesses why they didn’t radio to have the train stopped reveals that the small warning-sheet was too easy to miss when the train rumbled past. Had the employee at Wülfel known what was in the train car, he wouldn’t have let it proceed into Hanover, also meaning it’d have been stopped before a fire started. A few weeks after the tragedy an experiment is conducted at nearby Minden, manipulating the brake on an identical freight car and measuring the temperature as it’s being dragged along. The results show much more heat than expected, up to 1000°C/1830°F. The ammunition that exploded can’t handle more than 200°C/390°F. By the first of May 1970 new laws come into effect increasing the demands for transporting explosive materials, including special wheel bearings (which can’t get as hot, although this wasn’t the cause of this fire) and protective metal plates keeping possible sparks off the body of the car. Furthermore, the amount of explosives to be on one train is reduced and, if the remaining train’s brakes are sufficient, the cars carrying explosives have to have their brakes disabled. The markings on the outside of train cars carrying explosive materials were also improved. The investigation concludes at this point, no one ever faces charges or is put on trial for what happened. After the accident a small plaque is placed at the site of the explosion, reminding readers of the events and listing every victim’s name. In 2007 it is moved to the tram-station on the eastern end of the freight yard, where more people can see it.
The copper plaque’s left side tells of the date and events, saying the victims died while bravely fulfilling their professional duty, while the right side lists their names. The pattern in the middle resembles the tracks of the freight yard, marking the site of the explosion.
Mr. Krohn still struggles with survivors guilt over the events, as many of the survivors do or did. In a 2019 interview he pointed out that, looking at a photo of a destroyed firetruck, he can see where Mr. Hermann stood and died. Or rather, where he should’ve been standing originally. Hermann and his wife was a neighbor, Mr. Krohn claims he still has a decent relationship with his Widow after the tragic day, but that he feels “somewhat uneasy” around her and that they “largely avoided the topic of the explosion”.
Today the freight yard is still there and still in heavy use, and explosives are still transported by train. But with the improvements in safety, law and technology the day’s events could not repeat nowadays.
Thank you for reading entry NUMBER 50 (!) in the train crash series!