Labor Day train wreck among worst


September 01, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At 4 p.m. on Sept. 6, 1943, the Pennsylvania Railroad's crack Congressional Limited -- nicknamed "the Congo," by railroaders -- slowly swayed through the switches and crossovers of Washington's Union Station bound for New York City.

It was the nation's second wartime Labor Day, and on board the 16-car train comprised of Pullmans, day coaches and a diner were 541 passengers, including servicemen returning from weekend furloughs, parents who had visited sons at military installations and vacationers marking the end of summer.

By day's end, 79 of them would be dead and at least 120 injured, in what has remained in the record books as the country's fourth worst rail disaster.

The train's schedule was advertised as "two hundred and twenty-six miles in 210 minutes," and allowed for only one six-minute stop at Newark, N.J., along its entire route.

Pulled by one of the PRR's famed GGI-electric locomotives, the train was racing along at 60 mph as it approached Shore Tower at Frankford Junction in North Philadelphia.

It was a little after 6 p.m. when the phone rang in the tower. A railroad worker in "C" yard, about a half-mile west of the tower, reported an engineman seeing smoke and flames coming from underneath the seventh passenger car as the train raced north.

As the towerman went to activate a warning signal stopping the train, it jumped the tracks.

What followed was a scene directly out of hell. The stunned towerman looked on as the horrible blinding crash, a blend of screeching metal and crumbling rail cars, sprawled across the PRR's four-track mainline. The rail artery, a major carrier of wartime rail traffic, was completely shut down.

"The sixth and seventh car became uncoupled and the seventh, a day coach, was hurtled sidewise and struck one of the supports of the signal bridge. The signal bridge fell on it, overturning it, and peeling off its roof, a witness said, `like you might unroll the top from a can of sardines,' " reported The Evening Sun.

"The eighth car, another day coach, slammed into it and also was overturned. The rest of the cars, except the last one, an observation car, also were derailed and the first four of them, a diner and three Pullmans, were "whip-sawed across the tracks this way and that but did not upset," railroad officials told the newspaper.

Five of the six cars at the head of the train were undamaged, and uninjured passengers were transferred to them and taken on to New York.

Neighbors sitting on rowhouse stairs raced to the wreck site as police and fire sirens wailed throughout the city.

"Hopping from their doorsteps the neighbors headed for the railroad. The accident had curtained itself in a cloud of dust, one householder said, and when the first fitful breeze drew the curtain a scene of death and destruction loomed with sickening clarity," reported the newspaper.

The dead and alive were trapped under tons of metal as anguished cries beseeched rescue workers. Stunned survivors sat along the luggage-strewn right-of-way, waiting for medical assistance.

Ambulances soon filled the emergency rooms of Methodist, Jefferson, Frankford, Presbyterian, Jewish, Temple and St. Joseph's hospitals.

Doctors climbed over wreckage to reach those pinned below, and in some cases performing amputations to free the trapped.

Under floodlights the work went forward, as smoke arising from hissing acetylene torches used to cut away spent metal gave the scene an eerie glow.

Forty priests from St. Joan of Arc and St. Joachim's Roman Catholic churches and from Northeast Catholic High School, arrived to give last rites to the dead and dying and encouragement to the living.

At Frankford Hospital, a soldier lay on the operating table while a surgeon worked feverishly to save his life.

The soldier suddenly grabbed the hand of the priest and a woman volunteer standing nearby and said, "Take good care of me," he gasped, "my mother would want it that way." He then died.

Christina Nix, a 24-year-old who lived in Long Island, was the last to be pulled from the wreck.

As torches burned through the metal that trapped her, rescue workers kept her cool with water as doctors administered morphine and blood transfusions.

"I'm Irish. I can take it," she told workers. She died the next day at Episcopal Hospital, and her death made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Those words may have been the work of an overzealous reporter or a patriotic rescue worker. Or maybe she really said it. Whatever, it surely won her hearts in Philadelphia," reported The Inquirer in a 1993 anniversary story.

The one Baltimorean aboard was Jacqueline Mae Bentley, a car cleaner, who lived in East Biddle Street.

Bentley, between cars at the time of the wreck, was later thrown into a washroom. Pulled to safety by a soldier, she later woke up in the hospital.

"I heard a terrific noise and the car started to zig-zag. Then there was a tremendous jerk and it apparently fell on its side. It was all I could do to keep myself from being battered to pieces by the sides of the washroom, as the car seemed to be jumping along the tracks," she told The Evening Sun.

After an investigation at the scene, the FBI said there was no evidence of sabotage. The cause of the accident was an overheated journal box which caused one of the wheel axles to fail.

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