Runaway train crashed in D.C. Accident: Jan. 15, 1953, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Federal Express plowed into the Union Station concourse and stopped only after the locomotive fell through the crushed floor into the basement.

Remember When

January 26, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In 1835, the first train to reach the nation's capital chugged into the city over the Baltimore and Washington Railroad, as the Washington branch of the Baltimore and Ohio was known then.

However, there was probably no more spectacular train arrival in Washington than that of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Federal Express on Jan. 15, 1953.

The Boston-Washington overnight train, No. 173, smashed a bumper post, plowed into the station concourse and stopped only after the locomotive fell through the crushed floor into the basement of Union Station.

Miraculously, no one was killed, and only 43 people required hospitalization.

It was during the final days of the Truman administration, and the city was already beginning to teem with those arriving to witness or participate in the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower five days later.

The Pennsy's GG-1 electric locomotive No. 4876, which was pulling a train of 16 coaches and Pullman cars with 400 passengers aboard, had made its last stop at Baltimore that morning before arriving at Union Station.

As the train approached Landover at 80 mph, engineer Henry W. Brower pulled on the brake lever and the train slowed to 60. He pulled the lever again but the train only slowed to 50.

Becoming alarmed and realizing that the train was now a runaway and the terminal lay not far ahead, Brower yanked the brakes to full emergency. He began sounding the railroad's distress signal on the engine's air horn.

The train barreled past C Tower in the outer yard and then K Tower, where a towerman, John Feeney, had already set the switches for Track 16.

As the train roared past, he realized that something was wrong and phoned the stationmaster's office.

"Runaway on Track 16!" he shouted to clerk Ray Klopp, who looked up to see the train aiming for the station.

"Run for your lives!" he shouted to the other clerks, and they ran out of the office.

Thomas J. Murphy of Baltimore, the conductor, ran from car to car shouting at the passengers: "Get down on the floor! Lie down in your seat!"

"Dead ahead, frantic alarms had cleared the concourse. As the monster locomotive slammed into Track 16's end bumper and obliterated it, station clerk Klopp was reaching to dial the rescue services that would surely be needed," authors Carol M. Highsmith and Ted Landphair wrote in "Union Station: A Decorative History of Washington's Grand Terminal," published in 1988.

Plows into concourse

"After annihilating the rear platform," they continued, "the engine reared upward like an enraged mustang, burst with a shower of sparks and dust through the stationmaster's shed and station wall, and flopped onto the concourse. The runaway pulverized a concrete stanchion and what an instant before had been the newly expanded Union News Co. stand."

The havoc continued as the 150-ton locomotive skidded from side to side and finally crashed through the floor, dragging with it two New Haven coaches into the baggage and mail room.

Four workers were briefly trapped, but fortunately the rest of the room's large complement of workers had just left for a coffee break, which authorities later said had spared many lives.

The stationmaster's clock with its hands frozen to the exact moment of the calamity was later pulled from the wreckage. It read: 8: 36 a.m.

"If that train had come 20 feet nearer, I'd have been riding on the cow-catcher," J.A. Stenhouse, a witness, told The Sun.

"There was a tremendous roar. Then I had a flash thought that maybe this was an atomic bomb," he told the newspaper.

Eleanor Johnson, an Evening Sun reporter, had boarded the train in Baltimore.

As the train approached Washington, Johnson said everyone seemed to notice that "We were going too fast when all of a sudden the motion became jerky, there was a jolt, and people came in streaming from the car forward to the third car in which I was riding.

"We jolted along farther and farther, then came to a crashing halt."

Glass flew everywhere as passengers were covered with shards and dust, she reported, but what she found most odd was that in the midst of this devastation the newsstand's magazines remained perfectly stacked.

While smoke spiraled up from the basement and broken steam lines hissed, rescue and railroad workers rushed to the aid of the injured. The engineer climbed out of the cab uninjured, while his fireman received only scratches.

A man was heard to say as he hurled a chair through a smoking-car window, "I've always wanted to do that."

"Mother, I stuck to my post and did what I thought the railroad and my passengers would want me to do," Brower said to his wife.

"And I got out of the cab by myself. No one helped me," The Evening Sun quoted him as saying after he returned to his Philadelphia home.

Railroad operations were not disrupted, and the station functioned almost normally as crowds of the curious came to inspect the wreck.

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