Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lake Station, Indiana Church Bus/Train Crash. Oct. 31, 1971

Lake Station, Indiana Church Bus-Train collision
October 31, 1971

Legally, church buses have always fallen into a different category than school buses (And because of this, IMHO, they've also kind of fallen through a crack, safety-wise). Back in the seventies, in nearly every state, they were treated as private vehicles, or at best, the same as a commercial delivery truck. The problem was, of course, that the cargo they were delivering was infinitely more precious than, say, a case of soft drinks.

The laws that the drivers of church buses had to abide by were no more strict that the laws any driver had to abide by, and this includes laws involving railroad crossings. While common sense dictated that you stop at an unsignalled railroad crossing, unless the traditional cross bucks were backed up by a stop sign there was actually no law at all requiring the drivers of anything other than a school bus or a vehicle carrying hazardous materials to actually do so . Because of this legal loophole people regularly just sailed through these crossings, either counting on their assumed knowledge of the train schedule to protect them or just being totally ignorant, or worse, apathetic of the fact that they were potentially putting themselves and anyone with them in the path of a train that absolutely could not get stopped before it hit them.

One the first fatalities I ever ran was just such an accident, caused by a woman, possibly running late for work, blowing through an unsignaled crossing at the same time that the Auto Train blasted through at 60 plus. The results were gruesome, and it could have been even more tragic...she'd dropped her children off at a day care center only minutes before the accident. If the driver of a church bus that regularly picks up kids to take them to Sunday School  just blows through one of these unsignaled crossings with a bus load of kids, the results can be more tragic to the nth power. Unfortunately and tragically that's exactly what happened in East Lake Station... Indiana on Halloween, 1971.

This one takes us back to October 31st, 1971 in Lake Station Indiana, a bedroom community of around 12000 people in Lake County, which is tucked up into Indiana's very northwestern corner. Lake Station's been a residential community since it's founding, but it hasn't always been known as Lake Station. That was the name bequeathed upon it when it was founded as a stop on the Michigan Central R.R. back in the 1850s, The city's name was changed to East Gary back in the early 20th Century in an attempt to lure steel workers in from the huge steel mills in the very young but bustling city of Gary. East Gary was tucked into Gary's southeastern corner, and was primarily planned as a residential development (Residential mega-developments and the real estate moguls who love them are not new things). The name East Gary hung on for just shy of seventy years, until the city fathers changed it back to Lake Station in 1977 in a move to distance themselves from Gary's by then rapid deterioration and skyrocketing crime.

 On that fateful October 31st  of 1971, however, the city was still called East Gary.

Halloween fell on a Sunday that year, and the night before the youth from First Baptist Church, on Central Boulevard, had attended a Halloween party at the church. At a shade before 9:30 AM that  Sunday several of the same kids were in a former school bus, now owned by the church, that was ferrying them to Sunday School. The bus wasn't as full as it usually was because several of the regular riders had overslept because of that very same Halloween party. For them this would turn out to be a very fortunate stroke of luck.

The kids on the bus were discussing the party, costumes, and other kid-centric topics as the driver stopped at a stop sign at Marquette Blvd and Grand Avenue, glanced left and right, then hung a left onto narrow Grand Avenue, headed for Central. The Penn. Central tracks run parallel to and between Central Avenue and Marquette Blvd in that area, meaning traffic coming off of Marquette and heading for Central on Grand has to cross the tracks at a grade crossing. Marquette Avenue 'T's into Grand hard by the tracks, and when you swing left off of Marquette onto Grand you're so close to the crossing that you're bumping across the tracks almost before you finish the turn, especially in a vehicle as long as a bus.

Back in 1971, this was an unsignaled crossing, protected by only a set of cross-bucks on either side of the tracks, and on top of that, there were trees and houses hard by the road on the north side of the crossing, making for a very nasty sight-line for southbound vehicles. Thirty-four year old driver Joseph Spanos had barely straightened out when he rolled up to the crossing, heading south on Grand Avenue, and he did the same thing he'd done every time he made that turn and approached the crossing since he started driving the church bus...just rolled on across.

It really begins to sound like a broken record. There had never been a train there before, and the law said he didn't have to stop, despite what common sense should have all but screamed at him to do, so when he reached the crossing he just kept on going. But this time there was a eastbound Penn Central freight, running about 50 or so that was less than 200 feet away when the front of the bus rolled onto the tracks. The engineer barely had time to grab the brake handle and slam the brakes into emergency...the brakes had barely even begun to grab before they hit.

Area map of crossing.The accident crossing's circled in red, the red balloon marks the intersection of Marquette and Grand. I also marked First Baptist Church's location on Central. They were only about four blocks from the church when the accident happened.  Map courtesy of Google Maps

Satellite view of the crossing, with the direction of travel of both the bus and the train indicated. Take a look at the scale of feet in the lower right corner, and compare it to the distance between the Marquette/Grand intersection and the crossing. The driver of the bus would have barely straightened out before reaching the crossing. I'm not sure if this was a factor in his reason for not stopping or not, but, according to the few sources of information about the accident I could locate, this was not the only time he'd failed to stop.  Satellite Image Courtesy of Google Maps

Drivers eye view sitting at the stop sign at Marquette and Grand, on Marquette, with the crossing to the left. Again, it's obvious that the driver would have barely straightened out before he got to the crossing.  The sight-line towards the west...the direction the train was approaching completely obscured from this vantage point today, and from the sources I found it was probably worse 44 years ago. Also, back then there were no crossing signals or gates. Image Courtesy Google Maps Street View

Drivers eye view, making the turn off of Marquette onto Grand.   Image Courtesy Google Maps Street View

Sitting at the crossing stop line and looking west up the tracks...I used Paint Shop to remove the upper part of the overhead crossing signal mast and approximate the foliage to give an idea of what the sight line possibly would have like been back in October of 1971. Even if the view to the west had been even more obscured back then, I'm pretty sure that, if the driver had stopped, opened the door, and waited, he would have heard, then seen the approaching train.  Image Courtesy Google Maps Street View

...On board the bus, twelve year old Roberta 'Bobbie' Miller looked up and out of the right side windows of the bus just in time to see the blunt nose of the lead locomotive bearing down on them...the horn was probably blaring at the same time...and she had just enough time to look down, squeeze her eyes closed, and grab the chrome rail surrounding the seat back in front of her...

The train slammed into right side of the bus just aft of the door, shoving the side of the bus inward between two and three feet as the locomotive's front coupler tore through the lower portion of the bus body. The body mounts snapped like twigs and the body tore loose from the chassis, which was flung aside like a child's discarded toy. Because the body separated from the frame, the coupler didn't lock it onto the nose of the locomotive, but rather supported it as it bent into a shallow 'U' around the nose and was dragged almost 900 feet before it managed to snag a pole or signal mast on the side of the tracks and jerk free, spinning 180 degrees as it did so. It tumbled down the low embankment that the tracks ran along the top of as it spun, shuddering to a stop about 40 or so feet from and perpendicular to the tracks.

Bobbie Miller was injured...she'd end up with four broken vertebrae, and months of recovery...but she was alive, conscious, and, despite the pain she had to have been in, immediately began trying to help the other injured kids on the bus. Her older sister Elizabeth, and three other young girls weren't as lucky. Elizabeth had been ejected almost as soon as the bus was hit, and her body was found between the rails. Two other girls were killed instantly, and another, critically injured, would die in the hospital. Six other the kids on the bus were injured.

While the 'Big Engine-heavy foot' era of EMS was beginning to fade away, it was still apparently very much alive in East Gary back in 1971, as two of the first arriving ambulances were funeral home ambulances, a breed that was at one time very very common in the US, but, while it was well on the way to dying out by the early Seventies, was still alive and well in East Gary. R. O. Johnson was in charge of the first in unit, which was probably a convertible hearse that could be converted for ambulance was owned by Brady Funeral Home, and was actually fairly well equipped for a funeral home ambulance, with a decent selection of pry bars and light extrication tools, as well as first aid supplies. The bus body had been sprung, big time, by the collision, and Johnson applied one of the pry bars and lots of elbow grease to the rear emergency door, finally popping it about the time a second ambulance...also a funeral home ambo...arrived.

Johnson got inside the mangled bus to find Bobbie Miller comforting several of the other kids despite the pain she was in, several badly injured kids, and a critically injured driver. Between him and the other ambulance driver, they got several children out of the bus, including Bobbie, and transported them to the nearest hospital. (According to one of the few sources of info I could find on this one, Bobbie Miller was transported sitting in the front seat of the ambulance...and yes, my EMS roots cringe at that one, but she ultimately made a full recovery.) Also, I got the impression that the driver was also the only crew member, meaning the kids in the back were transported with-out even a basic first-aider in the back with them.

There were really no new lessons learned in this one, though Indiana was quick to pass a law requiring church buses as well as school buses to stop at Railroad Crossings.

1971 was also still within the era of 'Suck it up and get over it' attitude about emotional trauma. Young Bobbie Miller went through potentially devastating physical injury (Her parents were told she probably wouldn't live to see 30) and worse, lost her older sister in the crash, yet she was very much expected, once she got out of the hospital, to go back to school and carry on as if nothing worse than missing school because of a bad cold, or maybe a broken arm, had transpired. Ms Miller and myself are about the same age, and grew up during the same era...though she was raised in Indiana and I was raised almost eight hundred miles south in Virginia, the attitudes were the same. Though, as I've noted, I never had to deal with anything in the same zip code as being this horrible or tragic, I remember having friends injured or killed in traffic accidents and having my dad tell me it was 'None of my business'. That was bad enough. Losing a sibling and suffering major injuries at the same time, then being told, basically, to 'Get Over It' just boggles the modern sensibilities, and modern mind. But that really is the way it was...and again, it wasn't intentionally cruel or abusive...our parents loved us just as much as modern parents love their own children. It was just the way it was. Any kids born in the first three quarters or so of the 20th century can attest to that.

Unbelievably, the four young girls who died in the accident went un-memorialized for decades, until a gentleman named Fred Newman, who had become the accident's unofficial historian, became determined to do something about it. He, along with many other people, felt that Lake Station had not only forgotten about the accident, but had left the survivors twisting in the wind early on, and he was determined  to remedy this. He got in touch with the survivors of the accident, including Bobbie Miller, now Bobbie Miller Clawson and living in Toledo, Ohio, and told them of his plan.

The two of them worked together as a team, contacting other survivors of the accident and garnering support for a memorial.  An anonymous donor payed for a brass plaque that bore a likeness of all four of the young girls who died in the crash... Bobbie Miller's older sister Elizabeth Miller, 17; Rebecca Tucker, 13; Donna Marie Breckman, 13 and Merralee Meler, 9. The plaque was designed and created by artist Richard Kiebdaj, placed in the community room of Edison Middle School, in Lake Station and dedicated on June 14, 2014...forty-two years and change after the crash.

The Memorial Plaque dedicated to the four girls who died in the accident.
<***>Notes, Links, And Stuff<***>

The other posts in this series
in the order they were posted.

December 1961

August 1955

March 1972

August 1976  Conasauga Tenn.  March 2000   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938  Proberta, California Nov 1921  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930  Crescent City, Florida December 1933  Rockville, Maryland April 1935  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937 Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941


There was just enough info available about this one for me to make it a full post rather I was at first inclined to do...a note on the Stratton Bus Crash post. The story of the memorial plaque is what cemented that decision, as well as Bobbie Miller Clawson's courage, both at the scene and after the crash.


As is often the case with multiple fatality train/vehicle accidents at unsignaled grade crossings in the past, warning signals and gates were installed not long after the Lake Station accident.


Speaking of funeral home ambulances, it should be noted that there were two distinct types of funeral home run ambulance services. 

The first is the type noted here...the ambo was one of the hearses that could be converted for ambulance duty, and carried a few light extrication tools, some first aid equipment, and maybe oxygen. They were often manned by attendants with Standard First Aid, if that, and in some cases were manned by only the driver, as appears to be the case in the Lake Station accident. 

In many smaller towns the funeral home ambulance was the first, and for decades, only ambulance available...the funeral home was the obvious choice to run an ambulance service in the 20s and 30s because they owned a vehicle that could accommodate a patient who was lying down, and the funeral home continued to perform a dual role in these small towns for decades. Often  the only emergency equipment these rigs had was a siren, a couple of red lights, and a big engine, and this was still the way things were in some of the more rural portions of the country well into the Seventies.

Of course some towns had it better than home town of Boykins,Va had a funeral home run ambulance service for decades, though it was actually the second-run ambulance, so to speak, as Boykins Volunteer Fire Department had an ambulance almost from it's inception...BVFD's first ambo, BTW, was a 1953 Packard ambulance, and I regularly kick myself over the fact that I never got a picture of it.  We were also better off than a lot of towns in another respect. There were several registered mom and her best friend being two of well as an extremely proficient doctor who wouldn't hesitate for even a second if asked to ride on a call, either on the FD'a ambo, or on 'Mack McDowell's funeral home rig, so it wasn't unusual for a patient to be transported with an IV going long before ALS ambulances were business as usual. This was not necessarily the case in all towns served by a funeral home ambo.

The second type of Funeral Home run ambulance service was an actual, dedicated ambulance service that was operated by a funeral home, and there were more than a few of these, usually in larger cities and more populated areas. They tended to have better equipment and better trained crews, many had multiple ambulances and several of these split off from the Funeral Home and became independent ambulance services when a combination of legislation and cost started forcing funeral homes to abandon running ambulances.

<***>Links<***>   New York times article about the  accident and the memorial.  Like many online newspaper articles these days, you have to answer a couple of survey questions to see the text.

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