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'Potato Head' Offers His Side of the '75 Rescue

Most folks middle-aged or beyond likely have memory of the deep-throated commentator who could be heard on the radio daily with his “Rest of the Story” insights into life.

Well, we have our own Morrisons Cove rest of the story from the look back offered in this column last week involving Wilbur Holsinger, the man trapped in a railroad car of potatoes more than 45 years ago.

Details in last week’s vignette were slim as the man providing much of the information was never allowed to get to the site of what could have been a catastrophe, but the man personally involved paints an exciting — and sometimes scary — picture of life in this rural community.

Holsinger, now 68, lives outside New Enterprise with his wife Charlotte. He is an amiable retired railroader, quick to laugh, especially when recalling the details of that incident on June 9, 1975, which earned him the moniker “Potato Head,” especially among his fellow workers at Cove Apple Packers.

Wilbur, a member of the Northern Bedford class of 1975, had just graduated and was working as a laborer at the North Woodbury Township facility, which specialized in repackaging bulk produce brought in by rail car for consumer use.

“My uncle got me on between high school and before I went to the railroad,” he said.

It was a Monday shortly after 2 p.m. on the day when Holsinger and fellow employees Walter Sheehan and Denny Cooper were about to address the Santa Fe refrigerator car filled with California Long Whites, the crop that had left the farm outside side San Diego 11 days earlier.

The plan was to start releasing the potatoes into a three-foot by 10-foot conveyor placed under the car, then the three were to take an afternoon break.

The policy was to never crank open a hopper on a car unless a second party was present.

Holsinger, a wrestler in high school, was not more than 5 foot 8 inches and recalls that he weighed in at 138 pounds.

Following past practice, he got into the rail car and started stomping the potatoes out the bottom.

That’s when things went pear-shaped.

The belief is that an air pocket had formed among the potatoes, and when Holsinger stepped on the spuds, some fell into the vacant area, taking the young man with them.

“The potatoes were 16 feet deep and I fell 10 feet into them,” he recalled. “I disappeared clear out of sight.”

The employees on the ground called for emergency help and the long process of retrieval began.

Because of air pockets formed abound the potatoes, suffocation was not a likely concern, Holsinger said, but he couldn’t move.

“I had a temporary (dental) plate and I could move that,” he said. “Nothing else.”

A regular Mail Pouch chewer, he had spit out the tobacco minutes before jumping onto the potatoes, a good move in light of the frozen position he found himself in.

“I’m glad I did or I would have been forced to swallow it,” he said.

Emergency personnel were desperate to free the young man and considered every suggestion, including a harness brought to the scene by Jim Bloom, an Agway employee who retrieved it from a silo at the Curryville plant.

But Bloom was held at bay.

Holsinger’s future father-in-law, Charles Determine, who was working at New Enterprise Stone and Lime at the time, was permitted at the scene and eventually Charlotte, his future wife, was able to get close.

The problem was that no one was certain where Holsinger was in the car among the spuds because he was buried several feet.

Crews began pounding two-by-fours into the side of the rail car in the hopes determining his exact location.

“I could feel the potato juice hitting my face,” he said of how close the spikes were coming to his immovable body.

“I had one eye covered by a potato, I couldn’t move my arms,” he said.

When they determined his location, they opened the car using steel cutting equipment and began releasing the potatoes through a 4-foot by 8-foot opening along the bottom of the car.

The potatoes and Holsinger were able to get out.

“The potatoes started rolling out, they kept pushing them away and pushing them away,” he said.

It was the sound of the men’s voices talking to him that helped him keep his wits, he recalled.

The incident stared at 2:15 and got out at 7:30 p.m.

Holsinger was transported to Nason by ambulance. He was examined and kept over night. He had no injuries and was back to work June 11.

The Santa Fe car lacked an escape hatch, but to add to insult to injury, the rail company sent Holsinger a bill for $840 to cover repairs to the car, a bill he did not have to pay.

As for Charlotte, the incident was frightening.

“We were scared,” Charlotte said of Wilbur’s sister and herself. “It kept going on so long, but I was there when they brought him out.”

The incident, which attracted international attention, is one Wilbur said he’ll never forget.

Nor will Charlotte.

“We both believe God’s hand was on it,” she said. “It could have been so much worse.”

 

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