After 60 years, small town's tragedy remains vivid "THIS WAS OUR WORST DAY"

April 09, 1995|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

The Baltimore and Ohio express carrying passengers from St. Louis to Washington roared around the bend at 58 mph and then, out of the dreary darkness of a damp April night, bore down on the crossing at Rockville.

The school bus carrying 27 students from Williamsport High School in Washington County slowed at the dim crossing, but then rattled across the tracks, timidly at first, then lurching ahead as the headlight of the train's engine flooded the bus with a brilliant, fleeting light.

At 11:26 p.m. April 11, 1935, train and bus collided.

Fourteen students returning from an evening chemistry fair died in what state education officials believe is the worst school-bus tragedy in Maryland history.

Debi Robinson, a former Washington County teacher who wrote a short book recounting the crash for its 60th anniversary, believes people should remember the victims, salute the survivors and commemorate the seldom-recalled episode of small-town perseverance. The calamity tore the town apart and then pulled it back together as young bodies mounted in the town's funeral home.

"This was our worst day," says 81-year-old Maurice E. Snyder, a lifelong resident of Williamsport, southwest of Hagerstown. "Everybody knew somebody who was killed. They were neighbors. They were friends."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke out the next day, pledging up to $200 million for eliminating dangerous railroad crossings throughout the United States, including the fatal one at Rockville in Montgomery County. Americans mourned as newsreels in movie houses flickered grim reports from Maryland.

But the grief was Williamsport's. Six of the 14 students were seniors; the high school's graduating class shrank suddenly from 33 to 27.

The uncle of one of the dead students told a reporter from The Sun: "Even the World War didn't do this to us. Only five from Williamsport were killed then."

Horrid, heroic, even wondrous elements emerged from the crash. Three students are alive today because they moved from the rear of the bus to the front for the ride home; all students killed sat in the rear.

A prominent Williamsport doctor who delivered many of the students as babies helped identify the dead, including his own daughter. Williamsport endured 14 separate funerals. Then it built a library as a memorial.

Today, the tragedy lives in the memories of a dwindling number of people. Bill Gower, 79, one of the students who lived because he changed seats, says five or six of the 13 students who survived the wreck have since died.

One survivor still wakes up thinking about his friends who died. Other survivors, relatives of the dead students and the teacher who organized the field trip, say they don't think about it all that much. But when they do, they say, their memory is clear.

"People hardly ever talk about it anymore," says Celia Staley, the 99-year-old mother of a surviving student. "But for those of us who lived through it, we'll never forget as long as we live."

Louise Funk Beachley is 87, dignified, lives in Hagerstown and walks with canes because of arthritis. She was Louise Funk in 1935 -- an energetic, 27-year-old teacher of chemistry, physics and biology at Williamsport High. She also headed the science club and invited members to an after-school chemistry fair at the University of Maryland College Park.

Some parents suggested driving the students in cars. But Mrs. Beachley believed a bus was safer. Shiny and blue, it left the high school about 4:45 p.m. and arrived at the university about 7:15.

It departed about 10:35 -- but not before Bill Gower had to be dragged out of the fair. The 19-year-old senior class president was mesmerized by one exhibit: a single stream of water shooting straight up, balancing a spinning ball at the top.

"I still remember it," Mr. Gower says, shaking his head in amazement. "I'd just never seen anything like that."

He was the last student back on the bus. His seat in the rear, where he sat on the way down, was taken. He took the only seat left, two rows from the front.

Bill Gower wasn't the only student who changed seats. Jane Staley Yeakle -- then Jane Staley, a 16-year-old senior taking her first bus trip -- felt claustrophobic in back. She and a friend moved into the front row.

"I must have sat in the back on the way down; I really don't remember," Mrs. Yeakle says. "But when I got on the bus to go back, I didn't feel right. I felt like I was smothering or something."

It was a mild night, drizzling on and off, and back roads and farmland lay ahead to Williamsport. When the bus approached the Rockville crossing, the driver, Percy Line, slowed to 10 mph or 12 mph, he testified later. He said he didn't hear the crossing's warning bell or the train's whistle, or see the oncoming headlight, until he started across the tracks.

The locomotive ripped through the rear of the bus. Nearly all 14 victims died instantly. Two bodies were found impaled on the cowcatcher after the train came to a stop more than 3,000 feet down the tracks.

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