Day 3: Tuesday, January 15, 1952, ‘It’s Against the Law to Keep Us Here this Long
When we got up the morning of the 15th, the weather was as bad as ever. This was the fifth straight day of blizzard conditions. I was born and raised in this country, and I had never seen a storm like this last for over three days.”
— Lawrence Kearney, locomotive engineer, Rotary 7208
Responding to a call for help from other divisions, Shasta sent Rotary 7209 and two cabooses with supplies and section workers. They could not make it past Emigrant Gap.
Rotary 7210 plowed the eastbound track. Eight-to- fifteen-foot drifts made its progress extremely slow. It got stuck in deep snow four miles west of Soda Springs.
Klamath Falls sent Rotary 7221 and Union Pacific sent Rotary 070. They cleared the line east to Truckee without incident.
A rescue train carrying a doctor and supplies arrived from Reno. Since the train could not proceed, the doctor rode a dog sled to the snowbound train. A group of skiers and a PG&E Sno-Cat vehicle escorted them. Southern Pacific section workers brought in portable propane-fueled electric generators to recharge the train’s batteries. They hoped to bring warmth to a few Pullman cars. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide fumes from the generator seeped into the cars. This affected almost 60 passengers. Dr. Roehll and the nurses treated 27 for illness.
“Some of us didn’t think we would ever get out. We’d be rescued soon, we were told. But the promises were broken. Another day, another night, another day . . . but we were still there, the snow slowly burying the train.”
— Corporal Jenny Jains, Women’s Army Corps, City of San Francisco passenger
By the third day, fear turned to anger for many of the passengers on the train. Conditions inside the train were almost unbearable. It was cold and dark. Lack of ventilation, clogged plumbing, and noxious fumes from the generators made breathing difficult. Passengers could not open doors for fresh air unless crews shoveled snow away from the train. To keep warm in the frigid cars, passengers wrapped their feet and legs in curtains and any linens they could find. “It’s against the law to keep us here so long,” a frustrated passenger complained.
Day 4: Wednesday, January 16, 1952, ‘Thank God, it’s Over!’
“The fury of the storms was greater than the men with slide rules who designed the plows had ever anticipated.”
- San Francisco Chronicle , 17 January 1952.
The day finally broke. After three days battling one of the worst blizzards of the century, rescuers reached the snowbound passengers of the City of San Francisco. Their ordeal was finally over. It was also over for the rescuers. Southern Pacific (SP) management and crewmembers had worked around the clock with little sleep and food. The train’s 30 crewmembers suffered the same conditions as the passengers, but never stopped caring for their charges. That evening, everyone boarded the 16-car relief train bound for the Oakland terminal. Exhausted SP crewmembers detrained at Roseville, found their cars and drove home. With another storm in the forecast, they could not rest long.At 12:30 a.m. on January 17, City of San Francisco engineer, Thomas Sapunor, walked through his front door. His wife had no idea her husband was the engineer of the train that had dominated newspaper headlines for the past three days. He had a lot to tell her.
"And so, this morning, 221 weary men and women, released from icy captivity on a snow-blocked mountain ledge, rolled toward the bay area wrapped once again in warmth and streamlined luxury.”
- San Francisco Chronicle, 17 January 1952
Mexican section workers spent the night stomping back and forth outside the train. Their steps packed the snow and created a walking-path. By mid-day, passengers finally left the train and walked the path to waiting automobiles and trucks. “Thank God it’s over,” exclaimed one woman. They drove to Nyack Lodge, a ski resort that overlooked Emigrant Gap. There, the tired, bone-chilled passengers cleaned up and rested.
At 8:52 p.m., they boarded the relief train to Oakland. Some slept, but the majority celebrated in lounge cars. “I spent Christmas in New Jersey and I thought I would come to your west coast for a holiday. Nice holiday,” laughed Tom Purdy, traveling from London. When they arrived in Oakland at 3:55 a.m., relieved friends, relatives and media greeted them. It was a joyous end to a dreadful ordeal