On This Day

Wreckage from a derailed train lies beside the track of the Trans-Siberian Railway (AP).

On This Day: Freak Gas Explosion Near Trans-Siberian Railway Kills Hundreds

June 03, 2009 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 3, 1989, a spark from two passing trains ignited a cloud of natural gas leaking from a pipeline, causing the deadliest train disaster in history.

Another Soviet Tragedy

Late in the evening, two passenger trains were traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway through the Ural Mountains. According to the New York Times, many of the 1,200 on board were children bound for summer camp on the Black Sea. Headed in the opposite direction were passengers going to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

About three hours before the trains were to pass near the pipeline, technicians noticed a pressure drop in a pipeline carrying liquefied butane, propane and other hydrocarbon gases. Instead of locating the leak, the crew increased the flow to maintain normal pressure, Time magazine reported. The escaping gases dissipated into a cloud that hovered near the line.

One of the trains’ conductors reported smelling gas. Moments later a spark set off an explosion with the force of a 10-kiloton bomb. The plume was visible for more than 60 miles.

The explosion killed at least 500 people, but the exact death toll was unclear, as the intensity of the explosion reduced many bodies to ashes. More than 700 more were rushed to the hospital, many via helicopter, with 53 dying along the way.

According to The New York Times, two days later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called the pipeline workers’ actions “mismanagement, irresponsibility, disorganization.” The Times also reported that military surveillance crews were searching the woods and mountains near the accident site for survivors.

It was the latest in a series of mishaps that plagued Gorbachev as he struggled to enact democratic reforms and hold the fragmented, multiethnic country together. Time magazine reported that, within days of the train blast, ethnic clashes broke out between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in present-day Uzbekistan.

Three years earlier, the explosion of a power plant reactor in present-day Ukraine, dubbed the Chernobyl disaster, occured; the incident was also thought to be a result of human error.

Historical Context: Gorbachev attempts reform with “perestroika” and “glastnost”

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev used the term “perestroika” (revolutionary task) to describe the liberalizing measures he sought to institute in the Soviet Union, including allowing for freer elections and ushering in semi-private business. “Glasnost” came to mean greater freedom of speech for the media. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, an educational Web site, writes that, “[i]n promoting glasnost, Gorbachev assumed that it would enhance perestroika. But as the country became overwhelmed by the avalanche of reports about burgeoning criminality as well as revelations of state crimes of the past (‘retrospective glasnost’), glasnost effectively undermined public confidence” in the Soviet government.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Soviet Union: Hard Lessons and Unhappy Citizens’

In the June 19, 1989, issue of Time magazine, William R. Doerner reflects that the mishaps facing Gorbachev might have gone unnoticed if he had not liberalized Soviet restrictions on disseminating information. “Not so long ago, the catalog of crises that have recently afflicted the Soviet Union would have been buried in the recesses of the Kremlin, with much of the rest of the world none the wiser. Not anymore.”

Related Topic: Stalin’s legacy of ethnic division

In 1989, bands of ethnic Uzbeks massacred Meskhetians, despite the two groups’ sharing linguistic, cultural and religious ties. According to The Washington Post, The regional center of Kokand, in present-day Uzbekistan, held a large population of ethnic Meskhetian Turks, many of whom were better off economically than ethnic Uzbeks. Gangs torched the Meskhetians’ homes, looted their belongings and killed 100 people. Some 35,000 Meskhetian Turks were airlifted out of the area into European Russia. Abdusalom Ergashev, an Uzbek nationalist, said, “What we are seeing now is the direct result of Stalin’s policies,” which “created many artificial nations out of what used to be essentially one people.”

Later Developments: Dissolution of the Soviet Union

On December 8, 1991, Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus held a secret meeting outisde of Brest, Belarus, after which the three leaders formally dissolved the Soviet Union and founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The Brest statment effectively terminated the authority of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who resigned on Christmas Day.

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