Worst train collision frozen in memory of witnesses

Posted by Teresa Leonard on December 13, 2013 

Seventy years ago this weekend, as North Carolina marked the 40th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, disaster struck on snow-covered railroad tracks in Robeson County. It had been an uncommonly cold winter with no relief in sight. A broken rail had caused the derailment of the Florida-bound Tamiami West Coast Champion, killing one person. Then, “some 40 minutes later the northbound Tamiami East Coast Champion ploughed into the derailed coaches of the first train wreck which lay sprawled across the double track.”

In 2004, Fayetteville Observer writer Michael Futch spoke with some who recalled the accident.

It happened a long time ago, but Lucille Bullock can remember sitting in her father’s green 1940 Ford on the side of the road and seeing the trains down the railroad tracks in the snow. She would have been about 7 or 8 at the time.

Her family had driven to the site where one Atlantic Coast Line passenger train had hit another a couple of days earlier on the main line near the community of Buie about 1:30 a.m. Dec. 16, 1943.

It was bitter cold on the night of the accident.

Injured passengers trapped in the twisted steel cars screamed for help. As rescue workers cut through the wreckage with acetylene torches, doctors crawled through to administer morphine shots to the trapped survivors. The water in some of the syringes froze in the 10-degree temperatures.

Bullock’s father, George Tolar, visited the scene the day after it happened. “I remember going up there after he had went and come back,” said Bullock. “My mother and grandmother, which was his mother, we went up there and looked at it. But he wouldn’t let me get out and see where it was at. I had to stay in the car.”

Seventy-two people, including 52 servicemen bound for home for the holidays, lost their lives in the train wreck that occurred near the N.C. 211 overhead bridge on the rail line between Buie and Rennert in Robeson County. Almost as many people, 70, were hurt.

“Rescuers battled through the winter’s coldest night over snow and ice-coated highways to bring survivors of the double smashup to hospitals at Lumberton and Fayetteville,” The Associated Press reported. ...

The accident happened about 35 minutes after three cars of the southbound Tamiami West Coast Champion derailed after running across a split rail. This was shortly after the train had passed through Rennert. A dining car and two Pullman sleepers were left tilting, with the first of the derailed cars leaning over the tracks at an angle of about 45 degrees.

The train had left New York at 11:45 a.m. Dec. 15, and was due in St. Petersburg, Fla., the next day.

One slip in the snow

Once repair efforts began, the conductor sent the fireman down the track to flag oncoming trains. As he walked along the track, he slipped in the snow and fell, damaging his fusee, or colored flare, so that it wouldn’t work.

A couple of southbound freight trains were stopped, but attempts to halt the northbound Tamiami East Coast Champion failed. As that diesel-hauled train passed the railwayman, the crew was unaware of the danger that lay ahead.

The East Coast Champion plowed into its southbound cousin at a speed in excess of 85 mph, hurling hundreds of men, women and children into the wreckage. Both trains carried from 16 to 18 cars apiece and a heavy load of passengers in both sleeping cars and coaches.

Railway offices in Wilmington said nine cars on the northbound train were derailed.

“Scattered about the wreck scene were packages in Christmas wrappings, Army blouses, Marine coats and broken Christmas toys,” an Associated Press report said. “One spectator reported seeing a white satin dress and white veil, evidently the wedding dress of some passenger.”

‘Twisted like pretzels’

Horace Tyner of Red Springs recalled seeing a passenger car that had shoved into another from the impact. He went to the site a day or two after the accident.

“It was cold. It was cold. I remember everything all white,” he said. “I remember my first impression – all the rails twisted like pretzels. But that railroad, it was messed up. [For] 150 yards or more. All the bodies were gone. Only thing left of the wreck was the carnage of track, wreckage, wheels, axles and twisted railroad. It was just twisted all to pieces.” The N&O 2/1/2004

The wreck remains one of the deadliest railroad accidents in the U.S. Reports from the scene relayed stories of heroic efforts by some of the military and civilian passengers in tending to the wounded. However, there were obstacles for those trying to document the event. A Fayetteville photographer on assignment for the Associated Press was arrested by military police when he attempted to approach the wreckage. A Red Cross reporter had his camera seized and his film thrown into a fire.

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.

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