Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stratton Nebraska Church Bus/train crash

Stratton Nebraska Train/Church Bus crash
August 1976

The tragic and entirely inexcusable bus/train crash at Spring City, though it was far from the first or worst train/school-bus crash, was the one that woke America up and pointed out how vulnerable their kids were when riding a school bus. Laws had been passed in other states addressing the issue of stopping at rail crossings (And it still boggles the mind that such a law even needed to be passed) but Spring City's the one that made 'Stop, Look and Listen' into a law in all fifty states. Then the crash that lead off this series of posts...the infamous and equally tragic Evans Colorado bus-train crash...motivated Federal and State Government and school systems nation-wide to really look at school bus safety, and add policy, procedure, and further strengthen regulations addressing it. After Evans, State laws regarding school bus safety at Rail crossings became Federal law. Thing is, for all of those laws and policies and procedures to be effective, people actually have to abide by them. And for them to abide by them, there have to be Laws in place...

While federally mandated laws covered school buses, church buses were kind of left twisting in the wind, legally speaking, despite the tragic bus-train crash in Lake Station, Indiana. While Indiana Law was changed to require Church buses to stop at Railroad Crossings, not all states...or even many States...maybe not any states...followed suite. Thing is, Lake Station wasn't the worst train-church bus collision...that dubious title goes to an accident that occurred just shy of half a decade later.  To make matters worse, the railroad enabled the worst church bus-train accident to some extent by not upgrading their crossing signal equipment...basically they left an antique in service.

We're going to jump ahead to August 8th, 1976...fifteen years and change after the Evans crash, almost exactly 21 years after the Spring City crash, and three months shy of five years after the Lake Station crash...and travel to the tiny village of Stratton, Nebraska to take a look at this one. With just over 1.75 million residents in 77,300 square miles, Nebraska isn't exactly overcrowded or dotted with large cities, so it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of the towns in Nebraska are villages of well under 800 population. One of them is Stratton, situated in the west central portion of sparsely populated Hitchcock County, the second county in from the west in the row of perfectly rectangular counties along Nebraska's border with Kansas. Back in 1976 Stratton was home to right around 430 citizens. And on Sundays, the majority of well as those living on farms outside of town...went to church.

Every Sunday morning for years Thomas Nerren, the pastor of Stratton Church of Christ, had driven the church's  bus on a two or so mile long loop along the back roads surrounding Stratton, picking up children to bring them to Sunday School. This particular bus....a smaller 1966 Chevy-Wayne  36 passenger bus that had been retired by the school district and purchased by the church only about four months earlier...was new to the church, but still a decade old. The route apparently took him out of Stratton to the north, then back through town on Beaver Avenue...which becomes Veteran's Memorial Highway both north and south of town and is the only way out of town to the make another loop of the roads south of town.

A 1966 Chevy-chassied 36 passenger former school bus, that looks like it just may have been a church bus in it's second life. Though this one's now sitting abandoned and is in pretty decrepit shape, it's almost identical in model, size, and lay-out to the bus involved in the Stratton accident. The train hit the bus on the right rear, between the back wheel and the back of the bus, ripping the body loose from the chassis. Almost all of the passengers were ejected as the body flipped several times, ending up 60 mfeet from the point of impact.

Map of Stratton, Neraska. The accident crossing's circled in red. Map Courtesy of Google Maps

Satellite View of the crossing area, with the direction of travel of both the train and the bus indicated, ironically with a train on the crossing. Unfortunately there is no Street View available of the crossing, but if this is the way it was laid out at the time of the accident, it looks like Nerren would have easily been able to see the train...if he'd stopped and looked. Satellite View Courtesy Of Google Maps

Beaver Ave runs exactly due north/south and straight as a taut-stretched string as it passes through Stratton, and at about 9:30 on that fateful, already warm Sunday morning Thomas Nerren was heading south through town on Beaver as he began the second leg of his run. He had fifteen kids, two of them his own, along with his wife aboard as he came up on the Burlington Northern crossing near the southern town limits. The crossing saw about eight trains a day, and if it was anything like the crossings I've lived near in almost sixty years on this planet, you could almost set your watch by them. There wasn't one due to come through for an hour on either side of 9:30AM...unless, of course, one of them was running late.

...And unfortunately one was running late that warm Sunday morning. East bound B.N. Freight train # 100, with engineer Floyd Wesch driving it, was running about an hour late, but not running any faster than it's normal 60 or so as it approached Stratton's western limits. Wesch started jerking on the lanyard for the horn, blowing for the crossing, about the time he crossed the town limits...normally it took less than a minute for him to roll through the tiny town.

Thomas Nerren cleared Railway Street...200 feet or so north of the crossing...running about 20 miles per hour. As he cleared the intersection, he down-shifted, the bus' transmission whining as it started up the slight grade towards the crossing. The kids on the bus were singing, and ahead of them the red light in the center of the old fashioned 'Wig-Wag' style crossing signal, mounted about 12 feet above the road, winked on and the circular white and black signal began swinging back and forth, it's bell clanging out a warning. The freight's horn was braying, belting out the 'Long-Long-Short-Long grade crossing warning...

Old fashioned wig-wag style railroad crossing signal. When an approaching train closed an electrical contact, the red light in the center of the signal would come on, and a pair of electromagnets would cause the signal to swing back and forth. As the signal swung, it's arm would also strike a bell, ringing it. There are still a very few of these still in service in the western part of the US. This one's in Brookes, Oregon, and isn't on a mainline's used at a trolley museum. For a look at it in action, scroll down ↓

Burlington Northern's freight they newer, square-nosed 'GP' units or older round nosed 'F' units...were painted Cascade Green, a color that the grime from dust and diesel soot tended to darken to a shade closer to olive green as time wore on. A color, I might add, that would blend in with a row of trees hard by the south side of the Burlington Northern right-of-way that didn't end until about a football field or so west the crossing.

And that old fashioned Wig-Wag? Nerren had put his sun-visor down. School bus sun visors are the same shape as and only slightly smaller than the average dining room table. The wig-wag...the crossing's only warning device... was an overhead signal, mounted to the right of dead center over the lane, and once the bus was 100 feet or so from the crossing, hidden by the visor. There was a second wigwag, of course, on the other side of the tracks similarly mounted over the other lane, but it had no light facing towards Nerren and would have been hidden almost as quickly as the nearer signal, before Nerren noticed that it was swinging.  On top of that, it's thought that his wife may have been standing by the step well, talking to her husband or possibly leading the childrens' singing as they approached the crossing, blocking her husband's view out of the door.

Add just a bit of that same complacency that very likely got Duane Harms in Evans a decade and a half earlier...there wasn't supposed to be a train there...

Wesch saw the bus approaching the crossing, moving slowly, sure it was rolling to a stop. He may have grabbed the brass brake valve anyway, just in case, just before he realized with sickened horror that it wasn't stopping. As the front bumper crossed over the first rail, Wesch jerked the brake valve back hard, throwing them into emergency and locking every wheel on 67 freight cars, sending a couple of thousand tons of freight train sliding towards the crossing, locked wheels screaming a steel on steel song as they tossed sparks aside. He knew even as he dumped the brakes that there wasn't a chance in hell that he'd get stopped in time.

The theory, to this day, is that neither Reverend Nerren nor any of the kids on the bus ever even saw the train, which was was still sliding at about 45 MPH when the front of the lead locomotive tore into the right side of the bus, ripping the body from the frame and sending it spinning and tumbling for about 60 feet, tossing kids as it rolled. 

Most of the kids were ejected through either the opening at the front of the bus body, the windows, or the rear emergency door, some being thrown more than sixty feet as the bus body rolled and tumbled. Only one child stayed with the bus this time, and he was sitting just about at the point of impact and was found wedged between the seats and the sidewall of the bus.  Sadly this child was deceased, probably killed instantly in the initial collision.

Wesch was on the train's radio, notifying his dispatcher of the crash even as the citizens of Stratton descended upon the crossing. In the background, as if to confirm what they were seeing as they fell upon the scene, SVFD's house siren wound up to a wail. I can just about bet that the first arriving SFD officer called for every ambulance that was available, probably as the rigs were pulling out of the bay.

And help was limited...not only are the majority of the towns in Nebraska small, but there is a lot of wide-open space between towns. Back in 1976, Hitchcock County boasted just under 4100 residents with-in it's 720 square miles, There were (And are) four towns large enough to have a volunteer fire company, and not a one of them has a population of more then 600, limiting both available manpower and apparatus. While every town boasted a couple of pumpers, probably a tanker, and almost definitely a brush rig, specialized apparatus such as heavy rescue trucks and/or aerial ladders, which often double up, carrying vehicle extrication equipment, were (And are) few and far between in the more rural parts of the country. As for manpower, each company likely had between 20-30 active members on the someone not familiar with the fire service, that sounds like a crowd even if only half to two thirds show up, until you do the math. They had fifteen patients. A couple of them possibly trapped, all of them badly injured, and they had the hazards from the wrecked bus to take care of. Stratton's guys would have been overwhelmed quickly.

The fire sirens in all three of Stratton's neighboring towns were likely wailing well before 9:40 that morning. The good news was, with it being Sunday, the majority of the volunteer fire and rescue personnel were in town, at home or in church, so it took only a few minutes to get the rigs out the door with full crews when the call came in. The bad news was, it was going to take a while for the next in companies to get there. Trenton...Hitchcock County's County Seat, and Stratton's closest neighbor...was about a 12 mile straight shot east of Stratton on U.S. 34. Culbertson and Palisade were 23 and 25 miles away, respectively, while the neighboring towns of Benkelman, in Neighboring Dundy county and McCook, in Red Willow County were 19 miles East and 34 miles West on U.S.34 respectively. McCook, with a shade over 7700 people, was the largest town in the area, the most likely to have a heavy rescue, but was also the furthest away. The volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel and citizens in Stratton were going to have to wait a while for help to arrive.

Of course, small town fire companies have been used to working with limited resources for decades, and making do with what they had was just normal operating procedure. Stratton's guys rolled in and went to work, making do until more help got there. Also keep in mind here, EMS had advanced a good bit since even the Evan crash, a decade and a half back...Most states had EMT programs by 1976, though advanced prehospital care (Spell that 'Paramedics' and Cardiac Technicians') had been around for under a decade, and was only found in some...not all...larger metro areas. But the importance of such things as spinal immobilization for trauma patients was known and practiced, for example, and the ''Big Engine/Haul Ass' school of prehospital care was becoming a thing of the past. Of course this added to the burden a need both the manpower and the equipment to, for example, fully immobilize a trauma patient (Backboard them with proper spinal immobilization). Right at that moment, as noted above, Stratton was behind the eight-ball both manpower and equipment-wise.

Stratton did, at least, have a hospital...a very very small hospital, but still a hospital, normally staffed by a single physician. Fate dealt Stratton another bad hand, though...Stratton's doctor was out of town that Sunday, and the only two doctors in the area were both in Bekelman, at Dundy County Hospital. One off them was transported to Stratton by a Nebraska Highway Patrol officer, and took over at Stratton's hospital, while the other stayed to cover at Bekelman.

Six people...Five kids and Reverend Nerren...were killed instantly, and there were eleven injuries, ranging from serious to critical. By the time the first mutual aid rigs...from Trenton...sirened and airhorned their way into town on US 34, Nebraska's highway patrol along with Hitchcock County Sheriff's Department had the scene as secured as they were going to get it, and SVFD's guys were was well into triage and treatment, but they needed the extra hands to treat the patients efficiently. A couple of Stratton's guys were dealing with the inevitable leaking gasoline (Only the Love of God likely kept it from lighting off) and other hazards that the shattered bus offered up.

Once they had enough help, and enough ambulances things probably moved fairly quickly. Rural fire companies run lots of vehicle accidents, and with most of them being on the open road, they're usually bad ones, so some facets of working a major accident become all but second nature, no matter how many patients you have. The least seriously injured patients were transported to Stratton's small hospital...just up the street from the scene...and to Dundy County Hospital (Probably two to each), but seven patients had suffered injuries that were far too severe for either of the local facilities to handle, so a medical transport plane was dispatched. (I'd bet that this resource was called for early into the's way easier to turn something around if you find that you don't need it than it is to call for it when you're already behind the eight ball). It probably landed at Trenton's small airport, and those patients were flown to Denver, to be admitted to St Joseph's Hospital. Sadly three of these patients...two children and Reverend Nerren's wife...died enroute to Denver.  By the time the final tally was taken, nine people...including the Nerren's oldest child as well as  both Rev. Nerren and his wife...were killed in the crash, and everyone else on board the bus was injured,

To this day no one really knows why Thomas Nerren didn't see the train (Or indeed, stop at the crossing). Admittedly this was a church bus and not a school bus, and therefore wasn't legally required to stop, but morally it was pretty much still the same thing...a bus loaded with kids. On top of that, Thomas Nerren was licensed by the state of Nebraska as a school bus driver, and was listed by the Hitchcock County School district as a substitute bus driver, so he was familiar with the laws regarding school buses and railroad crossings. And he was also not said to be unintelligent. So, the question remains here...why didn't he stop?

I have a feeling complacency had a lot to do with it, and the antiquated warning signal at the crossing likely didn't help much. Lets take a look at the complacency first...that one's easy, actually. There had never been a train at that crossing at that time on a Sunday morning, and it was a signaled crossing. How often do any of us stop at a signaled crossing if the signals aren't activated? While common sense wise, and morally he should have followed the rules governing school buses at railroad crossings, legally he wasn't required to because it wasn't a school bus. And, again, there had never been a train there at 9:30 on a Sunday morning. Until that fateful Sunday in August of '76.

Obviously he didn't hear the train's horn. Interestingly, a study around that same time found that a fast moving train can 'out-run' it's horn. Ok, obviously it's not going faster than the speed of sound, but at 60 MPH and above, if the engineer starts sounding the horn at the traditional 1500 or so feet from the crossing  the train's moving fast enough that by the time a driver can hear, identify, and react to the horn, it's right on top of them. This is why school bus drivers are the very stop, and open the bus door at crossings.

It was August, so it's a given that the bus windows were open...anyone who's ever ridden an older, unairconditioned school bus when the weather was hot can tell you that the things quickly become ovens with the windows closed...but the windows being open didn't necessarily mean the horn would have been easier to hear. The bus was moving, climbing a slight grade, and the Reverend was down-shifting for the slight grade leading to the crossing. School buses of that vintage (Mid to late 60s) aren't quiet vehicles to ride in...ever...but they really whine and groan if they're under load, such as when climbing a hill. Add the children singing and the engine and driveline noise and it's absolutely possible that the horn was completely drowned out despite the windows being open. The NTSB report, in fact, stated that noise inside the bus was very likely the  reason that Nerren didn't hear the train's horn, 

Now lets look at that crossing signal. It was a 'Wig-Wag' example of the first type of automated signal ever developed. The first one was installed at a crossing in Long Beach, California in 1914. They consisted of a red target disc (Later changed to white with a black cross) about 2 feet in diameter with a red light in the center of the disc. When a train approached and closed an electrical circuit the light came on and a pair of alternating electromagnets caused the disc to swing back and forth, mimicking the swinging back and forth of a red lantern, which was the  'Stop' signal used by crossing watchmen. To add an audible signal as well, the arm that the target disc was mounted on also struck a bell as it swung back and forth, ringing it.

I picked out a pair of videos of Wig-wags in action...the first was still in service in 2008, protecting a spur track crossing a back road in Galena, Ill. The original bell had been replaced by an electronic bell years before this video was shot, and the wigwag has since been replaced by a modern alternating light and bell signal. Imagine being the driver of a bus with that dining room table sized sun visor down and you can see how the visor could hide the wig-wag at just the wrong time.

The second is a video of the wigwag at the trolly museum in Brookes, Oregon, pictured above, in action. This one has been restored to like new condition. As noted above, it's easy to see how a sun visor could obstruct the wig-wag.

A good number of wig-wags were mounted on posts beside the road on either side of the crossing, just as many modern signals are, but most were mounted above the center of the lane on either side of the crossing as the one in Stratton was. The lights weren't as bright as the lights used on modern signals and really weren't designed to be seen during the day, and the bell was no where near as loud as a modern crossing bell. (Many of the 'striker' bells that wig-wags were originally equipped with were, in fact, replaced with electric bells. The wig-wag in Stratton, from what I could gather from my research,, was not one of them.)

 These things were great back in 1914 when vehicle speeds were low and the great majority of cars were open, topless rides, and remained the standard crossing signal until the mid or late forties when the alternating light/bell signal we're all familiar with was developed and mandated. The wigwags were grandfathered, though, and didn't have to be replaced until they wore out, or the crossing was upgraded. These things have only one moving part...the arm that the signal's mounted on...and last forever, and there are still a few in service in the U.S. And they are very easy to miss in modern vehicles, especially the overhead ones...this is why the newer signals, later paired with crossing gates, were developed and mandated in the first place.

The wig-wag in Stratton had been there forever, and everyone...including Reverend Nerren...was familiar with it, but being mounted above the road, it was easy to miss it if you were distracted, had become a bit complacent, and weren't expecting a train, and I think this is exactly what happened. On top of that, as he got close to the crossing, the bus sun visor hid the signal. (This, by the way, is why modern overhead signals are almost always pared with lower mounted signals as well). Add a train running late that no one was expecting to be there, and the recipe for tragedy was complete.

Of course, we'll never know exactly what happened on that Sunday morning 38 years back, but the end result remains tragically the same...Nine people are dead, and one of the injured kids became an orphan and lost his brother at the same time.

The wig-wag signal in Stratton, by the way, was replaced by modern alternating light signals shortly after the accident.

<***>Links, Notes, And Stuff<***>

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

December 1961

August 1955

March 1972

October 1971  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

This incident's another one that doesn't have a lot of web presence at all. Had it not been for the NTSB report...which I found in it's entirety (Along with an archive of several hundred other ICC and NTSB reports from the early 20th century to the mid 90s) about two months after I posted this one...this post would have probably been about two paragraphs long, and would have more then likely been one of the notes at the end of one of the other posts. It always puzzles me a bit that an incident that resulted in the death of nine people...most of them all but unrecorded.


Speakin' of  finding the NTSB report late in the ball game (Heck, after the lights at the ball park had been cut off and the crowd had gone home) I also found that some of the info I'd found during my research was wrong, so I made the necessary changes (The bus was actually 10 years old, not 20) apologies to anyone who's read the uncorrected post. The info in the full report included considerably more detail as well.

Being a 1966 model, this was a Pre-D.O.T. bus, therefore it featured the 'Built to come apart' construction methods that were common before the new DOT regulations were enacted...of course those same regulations were still a year away when this accident happened and wouldn't have applied to a church bus in the first place.That being said...and with the new info I found when I found the full NTSB was built by one of the better body manufacturers (Wayne) and the body itself  seems, from the description of events in the NTSB report, to have held together fairly well. The problem was after being hit, the body tumbled and rolled so violently that all but one of the passengers was ejected.


As the great majority of church buses are used school buses, school buses are usually pushing 10-15 years old when they are declared surplus and sold by the school district, the pre-DOT regulations factor was a problem until well up into the 80s, possibly even into the early 90s, and factored in several bus accidents of all kinds...not just train-bus crashes.

These days, thankfully, even the oldest former school bus that's being used by a church is all but guaranteed to be a post-DOT bus.

 <***>Links<***>   Link to the narrative brief from the NTSB report,3836314    Archived news article about the accident from the Aug. 9, 1976 Byron Times



  1. I appreciate your research and work done here.

    My two sisters and I survived this tragedy when many did not. It was very interesting to read about this event some 40 years after the fact. I had/have suppressed the memories of this horrific day. For the life of me, I can not recall the song we where singing at the time this took place. It is something I think about from time to time.

    My sisters and I are all doing well and appreciate the second lease on life GOD gave to us.

    1. Thank you for the interest in my blog...I'm truly glad you and your sisters recovered and are doing well...I hope my post helped you to understand what happened a little bit more clearly.

      Yours and your sisters' Faith in God is very evident and inspirational as well.

      I noticed, during my years as an EMT, that memory suppression is very common, even in minor incidents, much less major traumatic incidents such as this. It's, as my Mom, who was a registered nurse told even before I got in the fire service and EMS the body's way of protecting us from our own memories.

  2. By the way, what brought you to write about this event?

    1. HMMM, where to start....

      I was deeply interested in the fire service even as a small child (Somewhere in the attic, in a box of ancient photos, is a picture of about six year old me in rain coat and toy fire helmet directing the stream from a garden hose onto the pile of loaves my dad was burning in the back yard. Dad was a volunteer firefighter at the time as well...I rode shot gun with him to more than a few incidents.)

      So I ended up getting in the fire service myself, as both an incident scene photographer on the fire side, and an EMT on the rescue side. Thirty-four years and around 10,0000 calls later, when I decided to hang up gear and camera, I'm still deeply interested in the fire service (When they say it gets in your blood they mean it!

      I've also always been a major history buff, and I decided, about 4 years ago that a blog about famous and unusual incidents would be an interesting undertaking. That proved to be an understatement.

      The bus crash posts, originally, were going to be just one post...the Evans, Colorado bus crash. While I was researching that one I realized just how many school bus-train accidents there have been, so I decided to do a series of posts about them, concentrating on the history of both the laws that were put in place to prevent them and the way they were handled by fire and EMS.

      I found, while I was doing research and looking for incidents, that the laws governing church and activity buses lagged behind laws governing school buses (I'm firmly convinced some lawmakers thought they were covering church and activity buses when they drafted laws covering school buses and were unpleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case) and ran up on the Stratton accident during my research and saw that it was a perfect example of several factors I'd seen in other bus crashes, plus, uniquely, it was caused, in part, by a device that was designed to prevent such accidents. (The infamous wig-wag signal)

      So I decided to include it as well...ironically it was one of the more difficult incidents to research because the NTSB report was so hard to find...unique among the bus crash posts where I had the report available, I found the full report after I posted the article, which caused me to have to do a partial rewrite.

      Hope this answered your question! Thanks for your interest!

  3. Your time to reply and interest in our current state of well being is most appreciated.

    The thorough explanation given to my question of what brought you to write about this event was great. Thank you for doing so.

  4. Thanks for the great read. Today would have been my sister Cindy's birthday. I lost 2 sisters in the tragic accident. My middle sister survived with broken legs. I was only 16 months old at the time. My dad was a volunteer firefighter at this time also. Thanks again for taking the time to do the research and writing.

  5. Very interesting read. I was talking with a co-worker earlier in the day, He started telling the story of his Daughter being killed in a Church bus / Train accident in southern Neb. I Googled it and your site was the first to pop up. I have worked with this man for 6 years and never knew of this till now. You never know a guy till you get to know a guy. Thank you for filling in the blanks as I didn't want to pry into his personal life anymore than what he was willing to divulge. Sad day for those involved.