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HISTORIES & MYSTERIES

A life derailed: Was Agent Orange to blame for the death of Larry Wilkins?

  • 9 min to read

Larry Wilkins was a proverbial mountain of a man.

He stood about 6-foot-6 and weighed in at 400 or so pounds. The bearded behemoth rode motorcycles to add to his often imposing appearance.

But as is often the case, looks were deceiving.

Even though he had no children of his own, Wilkins would don an extra large Santa Claus suit to spread cheer to local children, and more than one friend described him as a “gentle giant.”

And just like Wilkins, the train derailment in 1966 near downtown Horse Cave was fundamentally different than it appeared to be on the surface.

A freight train was heading from Michigan to New Orleans on June 13. After a stop in Louisville, the train continued south. About 1 a.m., the locomotive’s headlamp illuminated a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the friendly city of Horse Cave” on U.S. 31-W, which paralleled the tracks. Seconds later, the rear two cars of the train screeched off the tracks, sparking a multi-car derailment.

Some of the train’s 34 cars included cargo of steel, Army trucks and containers of chemicals that were bound for the U.S. Army Terminal Command facility in New Orleans. That cargo was slated to eventually reach the jungles of Vietnam, where the U.S. was embroiled in a lengthy war.

Later that morning, dozens of onlookers, rail workers, reporters and photographers descended on the crash site to see the mangled remains of the train cars, which had partially blocked the adjacent road. Some of the train cars and cargo had also fallen off the raised track bed onto adjoining fields.

Among those at the scene was a teen-aged Wilkins. The Wilkins family home and property – encompassing several acres – was adjacent to the railroad tracks.

Officials told reporters at the time that the train’s cargo included “a chemical harmful to humans and animals.”

But there were no injuries in the derailment, and as it was cleared over the next several days by crews, the story seemed over.

It stayed that way for more than two decades.

• • •

The year was 1991 – 25 years after the derailment. Wilkins was married to Cathy Wilkins and still living on the picturesque family property bordered by the railroad tracks.

It had been 23 years since Larry had graduated from Caverna High School, where he was a star lineman on the football team. After graduation, he and a friend traveled to West Lafayette, Ind., to try out for the Purdue University football team. He didn’t make the cut, so he returned home and eventually ran a home oxygen business on the same Horse Cave property where he grew up.

He had a passion for fast cars and loud motorcycles and had grown a thick beard but was more of a choir boy than a Hell’s Angel.

Fellow Caverna High School student Randy Donselman remembered him as nothing but “sweet-natured ... he was a sweet, soft-spoken guy.”

Another friend, Jesse Stewart, said he and Wilkins had a mutual interest in motorcycles, and they and a few friends would cruise the state’s backroads in the 1970s.

“Being the size he was, when he climbed on that motorcycle, the motorcycle disappeared,” Stewart recalled with a laugh. “He was a giant actually, but a gentle giant. He was one of the best people to ever walk the face of the Earth. You can’t really say much bad about Larry Wilkins.”

Longtime Horse Cave resident Tom Chaney taught Wilkins at Caverna schools and also knew his father, Albert Wilkins.

They were a “remarkable father-son combination,” Chaney said, adding that Larry inherited his father’s impressive stature.

Chaney said Albert Wilkins helped him move once, and he carried a refrigerator single-handedly up a flight of stairs.

“Both of them were perfect, gentle people,” Chaney said.

That summer of 1991, however, the gentle giant was dwindling.

Larry Wilkins was losing weight rapidly – about 10 pounds a week. He had abdominal pain and would wake up at night, drenched in sweat. He went to see a doctor and was eventually diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer that originates in the body’s lymphatic system.

Bowling Green attorney Kurt Maier of English Lucas Priest & Owsley said that after Larry was admitted to The Medical Center at Bowling Green after his rapid health deterioration, Cathy Wilkins “was sitting in the hallway of the hospital distraught, processing what had happened and the doctor asked, ‘Was your husband in Vietnam?’ And she said, ‘No, why?’ ”

The doctor told her studies had shown there was a link between service members exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Cathy then “remembered a story (Larry) had told her” about the train derailment just yards from their house when he was 16, Maier said. She recalled the stories Larry had told her about the train derailment, and how some of the spilled chemicals were dumped in a sinkhole on the Wilkins property. The sinkhole was near the Wilkins’ home garden and a pond they used as a swimming and fishing hole.

“She started wondering about that ... perhaps Agent Orange had been on the train, and that’s where it all started,” Maier said.

Just one day after being admitted to The Medical Center, Larry Wilkins died. He was 41.

At Larry’s funeral, Cathy Wilkins talked to a lawyer named Charlie Williams of Munfordville. Williams and Larry Wilkins had been in Rotary together.

Cathy Wilkins told Williams she was convinced that what had killed her husband was Agent Orange, and she wanted to sue the railroad.

• • •

Agent Orange was a herbicide used by the U.S. military, primarily in Vietnam, from 1961 to 1971. It contains toxic dioxin and was used to destroy vegetation used by opposing forces for cover, as well as to destroy crops in enemy territory.

The herbicide’s nickname came from the orange band used around its storage barrels. It was banned by the U.S. in 1971, but not before untold millions of Vietnamese and U.S. service members were exposed to it.

Agent Orange has been linked to myriad health issues, including various forms of cancer and notably, non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Williams knew he faced a complex case and brought in fellow University of Kentucky law school graduate Maier to aid in the lawsuit against CSX.

Almost immediately upon taking the case, the lawyers faced an obstacle: “Charlie and I contacted the railroad. They said there had never been a derailment; there was no record of it,” Maier said. “We contacted the government. Same story: we have no record of that ever happening.”

But there was a clear record of the event in the archives of the Daily News and other newspapers.

Then, “we found a man in Hart County who had just moved there ... it was a colossal event in that community, and he took dozens of pictures,” Maier said.

The photos showed the crumpled rail cars, military cargo, railroad workers and community members milling about the scene.

“And lo an behold we saw 6-foot-6, 16-year-old Larry Wilkins right in the middle of all of it, walking around in shorts and no shirt,” Maier said.

Other witnesses also recalled the derailment and seeing Wilkins around the site.

The lawyers began contacting as many people as they could who were witness to the accident scene.

“As the bystanders, including the local sheriff, mingled with the railroad people that day at the wreck in 1966, they asked what this stuff was and various descriptions were given. The railroad man told them, well it was weed killer, another said it was Agent Orange, another one said it was toxic,” Maier said.

“And piece by piece, a kind of old-school way of doing it, (we were) getting all of the information and evidence from talking to people,” Maier said.

With the newspaper reports and witnesses, it became hard to deny the derailment happened, so the new claim was that there was no documentation that the cargo included Agent Orange, Maier said.

Eventually, “we figured out who the people were in the port of New Orleans who were supposed to get the shipment,” Maier said.

The lawyers tracked down a former railroad employee in Louisiana who remembered checking the freight from the derailed train when it finally arrived.

The cargo coming from Kentucky definitely included Agent Orange, he said. Records showed 34 barrels of Agent Orange were expected to arrive in New Orleans, but about half did not make it.

Slowly, over the course of the next several years, the full story emerged.

Many of the orange-ringed 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange had ruptured after the derailment, their toxic contents spilling into the ground.

Eventually, according to witnesses, a front-end loader was used to take the remaining damaged drums to a sinkhole on the Wilkins property that was near the African American Guthrie Street Municipal Cemetery, and the toxic contents of the ruptured barrels were poured into the sinkhole and then covered with a layer of dirt.

The sinkhole drains into the Hidden River cave system.

Then, the damaged drums with the telltale orange ring were hauled away to Louisville.

Williams said they also discovered the apparent cause of the wreck. When the train was stopped in Louisville, axle grease was applied to the train wheels to lubricate them, but the back two cars were overlooked.

When the train approached Horse Cave, the ungreased wheels locked and sent the train cars off the tracks one after another like massive dominoes.

After the lawyers began making inquiries about the incident, the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet in 1991 excavated an area near the tracks and found evidence of another chemical, bromochloromethane, at another site closer to the tracks.

State officials “did come out here and did some poking around and looking, but I think that was perfunctory and they filed their report and that was as much as they wanted to do,” Williams said.

The sinkhole itself was not fully excavated – the composition of Agent Orange made it extremely unlikely that any trace of it would have been around 25 years later, Maier said.

But the lawyers did find crushed containers, labels and other evidence showing that cargo from the train had been buried in the area.

Armed with dozens of photos and the eyewitnesses, the lawyers commenced Cathy Wilkins’ lawsuit against the CSX railroad in federal court in Bowling Green.

“The science we were pretty good on ... the hardest thing was always going to be that there even was Agent Orange on the train and then Larry’s exposure to it,” Maier said.

But the lawyers never had to convince a jury of their case. Just a few days into the 1995 trial, CSX offered a settlement and Cathy Wilkins agreed to it. The terms of the settlement are confidential. CSX officials declined to comment for this article.

The lawsuit received some statewide coverage at the time, and raised concerns that many of the cancer cases in the area could be linked to the derailment.

The Wilkins’ neighbor died of cancer and “several people around this area did,” Williams said. “But so many of these people who had the symptoms, and there were a number of them, were lifelong smokers. And you could not see a way to get that through to a jury – once they heard that they’d say, ‘Well you know he started smoking when he was 16 – this is not a viable case,’ ” Williams said.

The episode made Jesse Stewart likewise concerned he had been exposed to Agent Orange while visiting his friend.

“I kind of wondered about that because my feet had been under his dining room table quite a few times,” Stewart said.

Some studies reportedly showed higher than expected cancer rates in the area, but it would be difficult to prove a direct link to the train derailment.

• • •

Decades later, the derailment and the Wilkins case remain vivid in the minds of many.

“We knew it would take a lot of work, we knew we might spend years and end up with nothing. But the deeper we got the more interesting it got and the stronger the case got,” Maier said. “I definitely had a few people tell me I was crazy to get in the middle of it, but once you are intrigued by something you are like a dog on a bone, you can’t let go.”

Their memories, and perhaps some lessons about the environment and the cost of war, are largely what remains of the derailment.

Jason Polk is an associate professor of geoscience and director of the Center for Human GeoEnvironmental Studies and the HydroAnalytical Lab at Western Kentucky University.

When he’s teaching at WKU or training people about groundwater contamination, he uses the Horse Cave derailment as an example – of what not to do.

“Given that we live in this karst area, where we have springs and sinkholes and underground rivers, everything on the surface and subsurface is fairly well connected, to where if you were to go out and dump some sort of chemical or contaminant gasoline, toxic substance into a sinkhole .... everything drains down into the underground cave system and river system,” Polk said. That underground system is linked to the water sources across the region, including the Barren River.

He added that there is a decidedly better understanding of the linked ecosystem now than in the past.

He cited a Popular Mechanics magazine article from 1921 that touted Bowling Green as having the most sanitary sewer system of any city – the underground karst system.

The article explained that when new houses were built in the city at the time, rather than connect to a sewer system, a hole was dug until it reached an underground void and the household waste was pumped into the hole.

“No city has a more sanitary sewer system,” according to the century-old article.

“It really wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s ... where we started to really study and understand and have a better conceptual idea of how this all works as far as the surface and subsurface and how a toxic substance like that could potentially move quickly into a sinkhole and contaminate groundwater,” Polk said.

Historically, sinkholes looked like a good place to throw trash in, he said. “It was a common practice.”

Williams said there has been “20 solid years of cleaning up sinkholes,” in southcentral Kentucky as the “mindset of if it’s out of sight it’s out of mind” prevailed for decades.

“I don’t know how they didn’t understand this in 1966. I thought 1966 was a fairly forward kind of year,” Williams said. “But they dumped that poison in sinkholes up here” where it could enter the water supply.

Chaney, whose father was the night clerk at a Horse Cave hotel at the time of the derailment, said when he tells the story of the derailment and spill “people were incredulous that nothing was done about it.”

• • •

Cathy Wilkins died in 2017. She and Larry had no children “and that was something that she thought could be related to his exposure to Agent Orange,” Williams said.

The Wilkins house burned down in 2019. Some foundation slabs remain visible on the property and provide a scenic overlook of the verdant land. Horses graze in the distance and the silence is only punctuated by the clack and roar of a passing train on the tracks that still bisect Horse Cave.

Asked about the ultimate lesson of the Wilkins case, Williams said it “was one of the villainies of war. I mean this is a Vietnam War thing,” he said. “These chemicals were destined for the jungles of Vietnam. And you know what they did there ... and they did the same thing in Horse Cave.”

Williams dubbed those who formulated Agent Orange, and other chemical cocktails even more potent, as “Mad chemists ... and the people of Horse Cave paid for it ... and I don’t think Larry was the only one.”

– Follow Managing Editor Wes Swietek on Twitter @WesSwietek or visit bgdailynews.com.