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It may not have been a record-setting year for railroad accidents, but it may have seemed that way to newspaper readers. Some of the most horrendous train disasters occurred in 1933, several bunched in the month of December. Some involved trains smashing into automobiles, some resulted from carelessness that caused one train to rear-end another on the same track, while others had their cause in torrential rains that weakened the structures of railroad bridges.

We'll start in December with a tragedy that authorities said later should never have happened, even on a foggy day. (That's the wreckage in the above photograph.)

Syracuse Journal, December 14
Train Hits Florida School Bus
CRESCENT CITY, Florida (INS) — Death that struck with devastating swiftness in a fog-wreathed countryside today blotted out the lives of at least eight school children in the crash of a school bus and a freight train, plunging this small Florida community, gay with pre-Christmas festivities, into mourning.

Twelve other children were so badly mangled that physicians feared they may die, and at least eight others, including the bus driver, were seriously injured.

Fog that enshrouded the southeast seaboard in an almost impenetrable blanket was blamed for the crash.

The bus, crowded with children in elementary and high school grades being transported from their rural homes to school, crept onto the crossing five miles from here as an Atlantic Coast Line freight rumbled northward. The bus seated more than 40 children and school officials feared it was filled.

Plunging through the blinding fog, the freight struck the bus squarely, hurtled it down the track several hundred feet before the train could be halted, and then flung the wreckage aside.

The final death toll was 11. The bus was a standard, mid-1920s truck chassis with a home-built wooden body. Children sat on benches running the length of the bus. Many of the canvas curtains were lowered and it's likely few of the 27 children aboard saw the train before the crash.

Bus driver D. R. Niles was driving the bus and had reached the end of his pick-up route at Silver Pond Grove, south of Crescent City, and was on a dirt side road that crossed the railroad tracks, not far from the paved highway.

Though Niles was considered a safe driver, he later was found negligent by the coroner's jury. A grand jury said he shouldn't have had to cross the railroad tracks on his trip to the school. However, no further legal action was taken in the case.

Ironically, the mother most devastated by the accident — four of her children were killed — was Mrs. Jennie Louise Smith, who worked for the Atlantic Coast Line, signaling a dozen trains, day and night, for 38 years, and also checking for mechanical defects and giving warnings to the crewmen. She also had three grandchildren who would have been on the bus that day had they not been excused from school.

Site of the crash was only a few miles from the location of another rail accident, this one on April 18, 2002, when a northbound Amtrak Auto Train derailed on a left-hand curve, killing four people and injuring 142 others.

The 1933 Florida tragedy was followed one day later by a railroad collision in Poland which took the lives of some children on their way to school.

Rome (NY) Daily Sentinel, December 15
11 Dead, 80 Hurt As Trains Collide
POZNAN, Poland (AP) — Eleven were killed, four more are expected to die and 80 other persons were injured today when one train smashed into another in the heart of the city.

Railroad men called it the worst wreck in the history of Poland.

Authorities held a signalman responsible for failing to display a halt signal for a train leaving the main depot while a local was standing on the same track.

The engineer of the outgoing train was blinded by a heavy fog and unable to see the train ahead.

The victims suffered from a cold of 11 degrees below zero. Of the 80 injured, apart from those expected to die, 20 were in a serious condition.

Most of the victims were children on their way to school.

The train leaving the station plowed into a local train, which had been halted by signal on the same track, and two cars of the standing train were plunged down a high embankment, a third remaining suspended in the air.

Rescue work was impeded by the intense cold.

Nine days later France was the scene of what was one of history's most devastating train wrecks.

Syracuse American, December 24
LAGNY, France (Universal) — Two express trains speeding hundreds of Frenchmen homeward for the Christmas holidays collided in a blanket fog three miles outside Lagny last night. One hundred and seventy-five of the gay-mooded holiday throng of passengers were killed. More than 400 were injured.

It was the worst railroad disaster of modern times. A signal blurred by the fog and mistaken by an engineer was believed responsible.

Most of the victims were passengers on the Paris-to-Nancy express that left the capital two hours later. It had been held up by the fog. It stopped near Pomponne, outside Lagny, and at 8:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m., EST), the Paris-to-Strasbourg express, speeding behind schedule along the same track, plowed into the rear.

Seven coaches of the telescoped train were splintered into a mass of kindling wood and twisted metal frames.

 

Buffalo Courier-Express, December 26
PARIS (AP) — The horror of Saturday night’s railroad catastrophe saddened Christmas Day for France. Twenty-three bodies of the 196 known victims remain unidentified, some so mutilated that it was doubted if their identity could ever be established.

An indication of the frightful shock of the crash of the Strasbourg flier into the fogbound Nancy express seventeen miles from here was the fact that 165 passengers in wooden cars of the express were killed outright.

Thirty-one died in hospitals later, with the death list likely to go above 200.

As investigators continued what loomed as a long inquiry into the tragedy, the worst railroad disaster in the history of France, both the engineer and fireman of the flier remained in prison at Meaux, charged with homicide by imprudence.

Lucien Daudigny, engineer of the flier, and Henry Charpentier, the fireman, both badly shocked by the disaster, continue to insist the signal was for a clear track ahead and that they heard no warning torpedoes, left by the crew of the Nancy train.

A protest against their “illegal and arbitrary” arrest and imprisonment was made by Deputy Louis Rollin. Other deputies insisted that a thorough investigation of railroad safety measures be made, saying the French system may be out of date.

The death toll exceeded 200, but the numbers vary by source. Engineer Daudigny was prosecuted for manslaughter, but was acquitted.

Two months earlier a French train was derailed near Conches, 60 miles northwest of Paris, and more than 40 persons were killed.

And in June a fire in the engine cab of a French express train killed the engineer and the fireman. Fortunately for the passengers, a quick-thinking conductor worked his way to the engine cab and stopped the train on the outskirts of Paris.

There were at least four more fatal railroad accidents in the United States during the last nine days of the year, a very disturbing statistic:

Syracuse Journal, December 26
ATLANTA — Charging that a deliberate plot was responsible for the wreck of a train near here on Saturday, police and railroad authorities today sought to fix responsibility.

The wreck cost two lives and injured several others when the train bound for Atlanta from Cincinnati with 105 holiday travelers plunged from the tracks.

Railroad officials said outer spikes holding the rails had been removed for a distance of several hundred feet, causing the rails to give way.

Syracuse Journal, December 27
CALVERT, Texas (INS) — At least six men were killed today when a Missouri Pacific freight train left the rails four miles west of here. Three of the dead were trainmen, the other three men were trespassers.

Syracuse Journal, December 29
LONDON, Ontario (INS) — Three young women and their escort were killed early today at the village of Rodney, near here, when their car was demolished by a Michigan Central train.

Syracuse American, December 31
RICHMOND, Virginia (INS) — Two trainmen were killed and another was injured today when the engine of a northbound Southern Railway train jumped the tracks as it drew into the South Richmond yards here. All passengers escaped injury.

 

In May, about 20 miles east of Syracuse, an amazingly quick and intelligent decision by a six-year-old girl saved her life when she and her seven-year-old brother were on a trestle when a train bore down on them. Her brother was less fortunate, but he would overcome his injuries.

Syracuse American, May 14
Clings to Bridge, Girl Saves Life;
Train Injures Boy

CANASTOTA — Struck by a train as he was running off the Lehigh Valley Railroad trestle over the old Erie Canal bed shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday, Johnny Beach, 7, second grade pupil at the South Side School, and son of Mrs. Fannie Beach of Delano Avenue, is in a serious condition at the Canastota Memorial Hospital, suffering from fractures of both legs above the knees, a scalp wound and possible internal injuries.

A sister, Anna May, 6, saved herself from possible death when, seeing she could not make the end of the trestle before the approach of the train, she grabbed on the guard rail and suspended herself in air about 40 feet over the water. She held on until the train, which was carrying only one freight car and a caboose passed, and then pulled herself back on the trestle.

Johnny reached the end of the trestle at the same time the train did and when struck was thrown down a 20-foot embankment. Mr. and Mrs. William Kentner, who were motoring through Canal Street, about 50 yards away, saw the accident and hurried to the boy’s side. He was placed in the car and taken to the Canastota Hospital.

The children had been visiting friends in that section and on their way home decided to take a shorter route along the railroad track. According to a report of the little girl, they did not see the locomotive until it had almost entered the trestle on the further side.

Two months later three people found themselves in a similar situation in northeastern New York. One died, one escaped without injury. I found no follow-up on the woman who was seriously injured.

Buffalo Courier Express, July 4
CHAMPLAIN (AP) — Trapped on a railroad bridge over the Chazy River near Champlain, Miss Jessie Leaffert, 30, of Champlain was instantly killed and her mother, Mrs. John Leaffert is in serious condition at a Plattsburgh hospital. A third member of the group, Sonny Laventure, 15, nephew of Mrs. Leaffert, escaped without injury by clinging with his hands to girders of the bridge as the train thundered past. The women were dashed from the structure to rocks below.

Lots of teenagers take joy rides, but a 17-year-old Connecticut boy wanted to do it in something bigger than an automobile.

Syracuse Journal, July 17
MILFORD, Connecticut (INS) — Charles Wysocki, 17, Union City School ‘mechanics” enthusiast, who last week borrowed a locomotive on the siding of the Connecticut Light and Power Company plant and crashed it into a string of empty freight cars, was given a $30 fine and 30 days’ suspended jail sentence.

Wysocki told the court he was studying mechanics in high school and that to further his knowledge he clambered aboard the engine. He pulled the wrong lever and the engine started full speed ahead. He jumped before the crash, which cost the railroad and light company $15,000.

 

The rest of 1933 wasn't without incident, where trains were concerned.

On January 28 four men, likely bank robbers on the run, crashed into the side of a freight train 26 miles south of Danville, Illinois. The men survived, but were seriously injured and headed for prison upon recovery. In their automobile were a machine gun, small arms, gas bombs and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

One man was killed near Winnipeg, Manitoba, on February 7, when two Canadian National Railway freight trains collided. The outdoor temperature was 34 degrees below zero. Wreckage from the trains caught fire after the crash, but the bitter cold froze water lines and hampered firemen who tried to subdue the flames.

On March 28 eleven-year-old Dorothy Dixon discovered a broken rail and rushed to a nearby railroad station and informed the agent, who flagged down an oncoming Frisco (St. Louis-San Francisco) passenger train, preventing a possible derailment.

On April 19 a train derailment near Unhua, Japan, killed eleven persons.

A rear-end crash of two subway train in Brooklyn injured 25 persons on May 24.

On June 3 four members of a family were killed when their automobile collided with a Michigan Central passenger train near Charlotte, Michigan. The mother and her youngest child, 18 months, survived but were seriously injured.

A Pennsylvania Railroad train, The Cavalier, was wrecked near Salisbury, Maryland, killing the engineer, the fireman and two men who had hitched a ride. Railroad officials said the wreck was caused by "malicious tampering with the rails." Bolts in a coupling connection had either been removed or loosened. Two wrenches were found near the tracks.

On August 19 four members of a Toledo, Ohio, family were killed and two others critically injured when their automobile was struck at a crossing by a westbound Wabash Railroad passenger train near Fort Wayne, Indiana.

On August 23, two New Jersey teenagers, both Boy Scouts, noticed that high winds had blown a light pole and a small shed onto tracks used by a Jersey City-Paterson commuter train. The boys ran to their homes, found lanterns, and returned to the tracks in time to warn the next train through. The engineer noticed the lanterns and brought the train to a halt before it reached the wreckage.

Five persons were killed and 20 injured on August 21 near Lisbon, Portugal, in a collision between a bus and a passenger train.

A sagging bridge over the Anacostia River near Washington, D. C., weakened by hurricane-induced flood waters, collapsed under the weight of a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train on August 24. Two trainmen were killed, and about a dozen passengers injured.

On August 26 a woman and her four children were killed after their automobile stalled on some railroad tracks and was demolished by a Pere Marquette passenger train near Traverse City, Michigan.

On August 29 a rain-weakened bridge near Tucumcari, New Mexico, sent the engine and five cars of a Southern Pacific passenger train into a swollen creek. Seven persons were killed, 40 injured.

One of the year's worst railroad accidents in the United States hit close to home:

Syracuse Journal, September 6
BINGHAMTON (INS) — H. Martin King, engineer of the Erie milk train which crashed into the rear end of the Erie eastbound flyer, the Atlantic Express, last night, killing 15 persons and injuring 25, admitted today that he had not set his brakes before the crash occurred.

King, who spoke to an International News Service reporter before going into the district attorney’s office to testify before a coroner’s inquiry, said he had seen the caution signals and felt he was operating in accordance with them. But when the train rounded the curve at State Hospital Hill on the Eastern outskirts of the city and went down the grade, the standing train ahead loomed up on him and the crash occurred before he could act.

The limited, bound from Chicago to Jersey City and carrying many homeward-bound visitors to the world’s fair, had just pulled out of the local station and stopped for a danger signal when the milk train, eastward bound, crashed into the rear end of the passenger train.

Most of those killed were in a wooden coach in the middle of the train. The locomotive of the milk train, smashing into a steel coach on the rear of the limited, telescoped another steel coach into the wooden car, smashing it like an eggshell.

On October 14 a British train that had been on exhibit at the Chicago Century of Progress world fair was involved in a fatal accident near Owensboro, Kentucky, while on the way to Louisville. The train was called the Royal Scot and it was nearing the Owensboro station when a young man tried to cross the tracks and underestimated the speed of the train. The man was crushed to death under the wheels. The train, which wasn't scheduled to stop, kept on going because its crew was unaware of the accident.

On the same day a New York, New Haven and Hartford freight train, en route from Boston to New York City, was derailed near Manchester, Connecticut. Two men were injured, two locomotives and 25 cars were derailed, and 300 feet of track torn up.

At least three persons were killed and seven seriously injured on November 18 when the Berlin-to-Paris express train collided with a repair train near Hanover, Germany.

Two men were critically injured in Quincy, Massachusetts, and 40 others less seriously hurt when a Boston-bound train crashed into the rear of another Boston-bound commuter train. The engineer of the second train was cited for passing a stop signal.

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