Tuesday, 3 September 2013

70 years ago this week, Philadelphia's disastrous train accident

It was Monday, Sept. 6, 1943 — the second Labor Day since the U.S. had entered World War II — and the pride of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a sleek train known as the Congressional Limited, was leaving the nation’s capital filled to capacity.

On board were returning holiday weekenders, military personnel on leave and government officials.

A 16-car express train with eight coaches, two dining cars and five Pullmans, it pulled out of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station at 4 p.m. carrying 541 passengers.

If everything went as scheduled, it would arrive at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station at precisely 7:35 traveling the 236 miles between Washington and New York at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour in a then-remarkable time of only three hours and 35 minutes.

Passing through Baltimore, Wilmington and even Philadelphia without stopping, it would roar past Philly’s 30th Street and North Philadelphia stations.

Yet it would be forced to slow down as it approached Frankford Junction on the edge of Kensington just beyond the point where the railroad passed under the Frankford El tracks on Kensington Avenue. There, it would decelerate to 45 miles an hour as it crossed a series of switches.

Beyond Frankford Junction, the train would again be racing along a relatively straight stretch of track through Northeast Philadelphia and into Lower Bucks County. After crossing the Delaware River at Trenton, there would be clear sailing all the way to its first stop — Newark — and, 20 minutes later, it would arrive at Pennsylvania Station.

But on that fated day, the Congressional Limited would never reach its final destination.

Before it had completed its run through Philadelphia, something would go dreadfully wrong.

What no one on that speeding train could know was the journal box — a device that lubricates railroad axles and resembles a hubcap — on one of the cars had burned out.

In 1943, cotton was packed into journal boxes to prevent their lubricating oil from leaking. However, if the oil was eventually depleted, the cotton would burn and the box would freeze up. resulting in tremendous friction against the axle, which would eventually cause that axle to break away.

The first warning came at 6 p.m. as the train passed Front Street just 3/4 of a mile west of Frankford Junction. There, Harold W. McClintock, then of Croydon, an engineer on a switching engine, noticed flames and smoke shooting from a defective journal box on the front wheel of the seventh car.

Recognizing the immediate danger, McClintock shouted to his partner, Andrew Carlin, to telephone ahead to the next signal tower.

Unfortunately, as the message was being received, the train was already bearing down on the tower. Before he had even put down the phone, John Boyer, who was manning the tower, watched in horror as the train began leaving the tracks, literally at his feet.

It was exactly 6:08 p.m.

As the Congressional passed under the Frankford elevated line structure, passengers had begun to notice the cars were jerking and the wheels seemed to be bounding along the rails. Some people were tossed from side to side. Others were thrown onto the floor. Babies were flying from their mothers’ arms and luggage was tumbling from the overhead racks.

Within seconds, the broken axle from the seventh car dropped to the roadbed, and the engine and the first six cars broke away from the rest of the train. The seventh car then vaulted into the air on the broken axle, flinging itself across the adjoining set of tracks and smashing against a huge steel tower that held the power lines and signal lights.

The pole cut through the length of the car like a can opener, splitting the top half from the bottom half, and spilling the passengers along the right of way. The eighth car hit the tower, was smashed around it and overturned with its end on top of the seventh car.

The ninth and 10th cars jackknifed and spread across two adjoining tracks. Behind them, four more cars left the tracks, but remained upright, and more than 1,500 feet of three separate tracks were torn apart.

The injured and dying lay everywhere. Many were trapped inside by the crushed seats and collapsed metal.

Hearing the tremendous noise and witnessing the electrical sparks from the falling high-voltage lines, many of the neighborhood residents rushed from their homes and up the steep embankment to the scene of the wreck.

Some were frozen in place by the horrible sights they witnessed and by the screams of the injured and dying. Others stayed to assist the injured or returned to their homes for bedsheets and linens that were quickly used as dressings. Civil defense workers brought stretchers and other medical supplies that had been stockpiled for possible wartime use in air raids.

Private homes on the street that ran parallel to the tracks served as temporary aid stations. Passing vehicles, particularly small trucks, were stopped and pressed into service to transport some of the injured to nearby hospitals.

In the first hours following the disaster, rows of sheet-covered bodies lay on the lawn of a nearby hospital before being taken to the city morgue.

As word of the tragedy spread, hundreds of spectators began arriving, hampering the rescue work. Soldiers and sailors were called in, and armed with submachine guns, they surrounded the wreckage, holding back the curious and preventing looting.

Throughout the night, cars on the Frankford El were jammed, as curiosity-seekers rode back and forth gawking out the windows at the unbelievable scene just beneath them.

While 79 people died and another 116 were injured in what would be known as one of the worst train wrecks in American history, fortunately, the Congressional Limited was traveling at only 45 miles an hour when it left the tracks.

It’s difficult to imagine what the casualty toll might have been if the accident had occurred a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later when it would have been moving at a much-higher speed.

Tuesday 3 September 2013



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