Monday, March 21, 2016

Mason City, Iowa Bus-Train Crash

Mason City, Iowa Train/School Bus Crash Oct. 1937
New and Old technology's tragic Mason City meeting

For our second tragic field trip, we're heading for a town that both music lovers and John Dillinger fans...Thirties gangster-philes in general for that matter...know well.  Mason City, Iowa.

Back in February 1959 a Beech Bonanza departed from Mason City's airport, taking off during a snow storm, and flew off into music history...that day, February 3rd, 1959, would go down in history as 'The Day The Music Died. Twenty-five years before that, in one of the most infamous of his many bank robberies, John Dillinger and his gang knocked over the First National Bank in Mason City.

 The deaths of Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J. P. Richardson, AKA The Big Bopper, were commemorated with a  a #1 hit song and Dillinger's robbery of the First National Bank has been re-enacted annually for years...these two events have become permanently ingrained in Mason City's history. But, unless you dug down real deeply in the dusty file bin containing near-forgotten events, you'd  very likely never hear about the train-bus crash that killed ten students, two teachers, and the bus driver  because Mason City's most tragic event is apparently also its least well known.

Mason City is best known as the city where the fatal flight that became The Day
The Music Died originated, as well as the site of one of John Dillinger's
most infamous bank robberies. Sadly, however, the bus-train crash that's
Mason City's most tragic event is all but unknown
On October 22nd 1937 the U.S. was still in the midst of The Great Depression, though things had eased a bit since the Depression's worst year...1933...and some areas weren't in as bad a shape as others, often because of the amount and type of industry that called the city or region home. Mason City's a good example of this.

 The city has a population of about 27,500  today and was only slightly smaller  back in 1937, with a population of about 25,0000, when it was still known as one of the largest producers of brick and tile in the country. Brick and tile manufacture was a huge industry, thanks at least in part to FDR's Works Projects Administration, which erected thousands upon thousands of government buildings, from post offices to new city halls to fire stations, during the mid Thirties. Way more than a few of the bricks used to build those buildings came from Mason City, which boasted no fewer than eight big brick and tile plants in 1933, and the oldest and largest of them all was the Mason City Brick and Tile company, located on what was then the city's southwest boundary. 
All of this industry provided thousands of jobs for Mason City area residents, easing the trials of the Depression for them significantly...But it was still The Great Depression. Jobs were still scarce, and school systems did everything in their power to try and help soon-to-graduate students find work after they received their diploma. Never mind enrollment in the thirties was at it's lowest ebb in history thanks to the Depression...these kids needed jobs when they graduated, both for themselves and to help their families .

To this end, Renwick High School...located in tiny Renwick, Iowa, sixty or so road miles from Mason City... sent the school's vocational class on a field trip to Mason City to tour the various industries and businesses every fall. So, early on that fateful October 22nd twenty-nine kids climbed aboard an already elderly, wood-framed, mid-20s vintage school bus, sat down in the perimeter seating that the ride was inevitably equipped with, and settled in for the sixty mile trip north up State Route 17, then east on US 18, kicking back and socializing and generally enjoying the two or so hour ride. They'd spend the whole day touring Mason City's industries, taking in several plant and business tours with, of course, a lunch break somewhere in the mix.

Old Renwick High School, known in later years as Boone Valley School, where the fatal field trip originated. The building now houses a hardware store/implement dealer

Mason City Brick and Tile back in the 30s...this is the plant the bus was leaving when it was struck by The Kansas City Rocket.
Sometime after lunch they rolled in to Mason City Brick and and Tile, and started their tour of that was their next to last stop of the day...


...and we'll, for the moment, leave them touring MCB&T while we take a look at a little bit of Railroad me it's both relevant and necessary.

...By the early Thirties railroads were the way to move large amounts of both people and goods at high speed, and the steam locomotive was absolute king. Railroads, however, were looking for more efficient and economical ways to move said large amounts of goods and people than the steamer. Steam engines were high maintenance beasts and needed lots of infrastructure to keep them rolling. Electric locomotives were far more efficient, could haul legitimate ass, and some railroads made good use of them...but they required even more infrastructure that would need to be built with funds that, in the midst of The Great Depression, weren't always available.

So, railroad executives took a long, hard look at both the gasoline powered rail cars that were used on short lines, and the diesel powered switchers that had been in use here and there since the early part of the decade. And, at some point someone as they examined them, someone had the thought 'HMMMM...if they took the diesel electric drive system in the switchers, and made it bigger and more powerful, and put it in a passenger locomotive.... HMMMMM.

Chins were likely rubbed meaningfully in every railroad executive board room in the land, and in 1934  the Burlington, Northern and Quincy Railroad...better known to railroaders and rail-fans as 'The Burlington...was the first to actually put the concept into practical use when they developed, had built, and placed in service a streamlined, stainless steel, articulated train-set they called 'The Pioneer Zephyr'. While a full description of this pretty amazing machine would be far too long for this post, lets just say it was successful, and fast. Like REAL fast. As in 'Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours' fast, on it's inaugural trip in May of 1934. That's an average speed of 77 or so Miles Per Hour. It was also a huge success, staying in service until 1960.

Now lets fast forward a few years to the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad...better known as simply The Rock Island. Their big revenue earner on their primarily Midwestern routes was freight...particularly agricultural freight...and the combination of The Great Depression, and the Great Dust Bowl hit them with a double-whammy, reducing freight volume...and thus profits... astronomically.As 1934 drew to a close, bankruptcy was looming like a malignant storm cloud just over the horizon

In 1935 the Rock Island gained a new CEO by the name of Ed Durham, who hired a guy named John Farrington to act as what would likely be called Chief Operations Officer today. Farrington immediately set about scrapping aging equipment, accumulating capital from then sale of said old stuff, and using the capitol to modernize the Rock Island's operations. The Crown Jewels of this modernization would be six semi-articulated streamliners pulled by EMC Diesel locomotives, to be named 'Rockets' 

Promotional painting of the Rockets used for advertising. 

These trains looked radically different from The Zephyrs. The EMC locomotives that were delivered in 1937 would have looked modern to any kid, railroader, or rail fan of the 50s and 60s, with their rounded nose, set back, full width cab, split windshield and slab sides. The trains, like the Zephyrs, were semi-permanently coupled, articulated train sets, and like the Zephyrs, they were fast, but the Rockets improved on the earlier streamliners...they were both more powerful (A V16 diesel of 1200 HP V/S a V-8 of 600) and more comfortable, featuring wide seats and cocktail bars. They were also only semi-articulated, making them more practical. While the two or three coaches were permanently coupled together, the locomotives and observation cars were coupled to the trains using conventional couplings, so they could be used in other applications if needed.
There were six Rockets, and they were put in service on five routes, each train named after it's route.:

The Texas Rocket ran from Fort Worth to Houston, Texas.
The Rocky Mountain Rocket ran from Kansas City, Missouri to Denver, Colorado.
The Peoria Rocket ran from Chicago to Peoria, Illinois. 
The Des Moines Rocket ran from Chicago, Illinois to Des Moines, Iowa.

And, for this post, most importantly...

The Kansas City Rocket, which ran two trains daily from Minneapolis to Kansas City, Missouri.

The afternoon run from Kansas City to Minneapolis is the run we're looking at...and this brings us back to the kids at Mason City Brick and Tile...


The tour of Mason City Brick and Tile probably took an hour or so,  then the kids trooped out of the building into the crisp fall air and climbed aboard the bus, grabbing their seats. We all  well know and remember the hierarchy of school bus seating, whether it's a brand spanking new 2016 Thomas or Bluebird with all the bells and whistles or an 80+ year old wooden bodied bus with perimeter bench seating. The bus fills up from back to front. You save a seat for your best friend. And of course your girlfriend. And, to that end, fifteen year old Corwin Peer (Bet his friends called him 'Cor') held hands with pretty sixteen year old LaVonne Helmke and the two of them walked to the rear of the bus and plopped down in the last two seats on the right side of the ride, giving each other those looks and smiles that have been the proprietary domain of teenage couples from time eternal, Levonne likely giving Corwin a couple of those giggly, nose-crinkly little smiles that girls have turned their boyfriends to putty with for centuries. Keep these two in mind.

 The kids were probably getting tired, and they still had one more business to tour before setting out on the two hour trip ride that would put them back home in Renwick in time for a late supper, but they still had reserves of energy that only kids that age can boast of. They were laughing and joking and talking, and goofing off, and having a good old time. As I've noted, that's the primary purpose of a field trip from a kids-eye view. Sadly, their good time...and their lives...were about to be brutally shattered.

A satellite view of the south end of Mason City, with the approximate area of the accident...shown in further detail in the satellite view below...noted,. The Rocket's inbound route in denoted with red dashes. This area, deeply inside the boundaries of Mason City today, was on the far southwest city line in 1935. 

Approximate area where Mason City Brick and Tile...and the accident...were located. Try as I might, I couldn't narrow it down any further. We do know a few things though. (1) The Rocket was headed north, slowing as it approached Mason City's train station. (2) the bus was leaving Mason City Brick And Tile...which had buildings on both sides of the Rock Island R.R. main line. (3) It was enroute to it's final stop on the tour, and was probably working it's way back towards US 18 (Now Business Route 18), their route home.  (4) The bus was hit on the left side, so it was heading west, north, or at least in a northwesterly direction when it reached the fatal crossing.

Interesting little factoid, BTW...The grade crossing I circled in yellow, right at the top left corner of the outlined area, is an unprotected crossing...I found this out as I was checking street view. Admittedly, it's on a siding serving several businesses rather than a main line, but this proves that unprotected crossings not only still exist, but do so even in urban areas. One this close to the site where a major bus/train accident matter how long ago it interesting, to say the least.

“OK...if you guys are ready and are, I don't know, sitting down...can we go?' Renwick was a tiny town, and Rex Simpson had driven the bus for several years,...all the kids knew him and liked him, and a couple of good naturedly smart alec remarks...possibly alluding to their ride's near antique status...very likely followed. Simpson likely just shook his head equally good naturedly, dropped the bus into gear, let out the clutch, and eased away from the plant entrance as conversation and the effervescent energy of youth...that happy-go-lucky vibe that is the hallmark of any group of teens...filled the bus.

Simpson eased along the gravel road leading out of the plant, moving between piles of just-made bricks the size of buildings. The MCB&T plant was huge, covering about thirty acres and occupying several buildings. The building they'd just left was plant 3, and ahead of them was plant 4...the road they were on wound past that building before reaching the street that would take them to their final stop on the trip before heading home, but first they had to cross the Rock Island tracks, which bisected the plant property.

As they wound around the huge pile of bricks, Simpson saw a set of tracks, just beyond and hard by the huge brick-pile....


...Veteran Rock Island Road engineer George Simpson (No relation to the bus driver) considered himself a seriously blessed dude...he was one of several lucky engineers who'd been anointed as Keepers of the Rocket, so to speak. He'd taken classes and passed tests and ridden on check rides to get qualified on the big, state-of-the-art EMC TA Series diesel-electric locomotive, which was one of the few such noble mechanical steeds in the nation at the time. Instead of sitting in a semi open air cab leaning out of a side picture window with wind and steam blasting him in the face so he could kind of see ahead of him, he sat in an adjustable seat in an enclosed, heated cab, with excellent forward visibility through a wiper-equipped car-like windshield. Behind him was the muted rumble of the big V-16 engine, and hum of the generator that powered the traction motors, as well as one of the most modern trains in the country.

As they approached Mason City, the Kansas City Rocket was just about two thirds of the way through it's run from Kansas City to Minneapolis, and they had a stop at Mason City. They would change crews only ten miles further Manly, Iowa...and the new crew would take The Rocket on into Minneapolis, stay over night, then on the return trip take it as far south as Manly, where Simpson's crew would take over and take her south back to K.C.

The Rocket was barely five minutes behind schedule as it approached Mason City, identifiable from a few miles out by the multiple smoke-stacks of Mason City Brick and Tile, whose property The Rock Island main line cut right through the middle of. Mason City's Rock Island rail depot was only a mile or so beyond the plant. As they entered a long, sweeping curve to the right, Simpson eased the throttle back, and gently applied the service brakes, taking his time in bringing the Rocket down from her customary cruising speed of 80 or so to a more sedate twenty-five miles per hour. They passed the whistle board for the first of several crossings...almost all private crossings on plant property... ahead of them, and he reached up to the cab ceiling, grasped the end of a lanyard, and started yanking it in the time-honored long-long-short-long crossing warning signal. The horn's sound was still a little strange to him...rather than the melodic wail of a steam whistle it was the deep, pissed-off-moose 'WOONK!! of an air horn.

An in-service photo of The Rocky Mountain Rocket, which was virtually identical to The Kansas City Rocket. One thing is very much conspicuous due to it's absence...the smoke column that steam locomotives pumped skyward, advertising their approach from as much as a mile or so out. Though the Rockets' EMC-TA diesel locomotives were often jokingly referred to as honorary steam locomotives because of the heavy smoke that their Winton V-16 diesel engines produced under heavy acceleration, they didn't even come close to producing the volume of smoke produced by a steam locomotive.

 This ended up being a problem, not only for the Rockets, but for all early diesel powered streamliners. (Diesels didn't enter freight service until the late 40s/early 50s). These early diesel powered trains were involved in dozens of grade crossing collisions, and the fact that the driver didn't see a smoke column and therefore assumed the way was clear was cited as a contributory factor in the accident's cause on more than a few occasions. 

Of course, this wasn't a factor in the Mason City accident, because that pile of bricks blocked Rex Simpson's view of the tracks until the last twenty feet or so before he reached the crossing. One thing that was a factor in the Mason City crash, and in all of these cases, however, was the fact that if the driver had actually stopped at the crossing and really looked and listened he'd have seen (and heard) the approaching train.
In Mason City, kids just getting out of school heard the distinctive 'WOOOONK-WOOOONK-
WONK-WOOOONK of the Rocket's air horn, and beat feet to the Rock Island right of way to watch the big, bright red diesel and it's train of shining silver passenger cars roll past. This was a major thrill for these kids. Though this sight is more than commonplace to us today, and we don't give a diesel locomotive pulling a train a second's thought (Unless we're late for work and caught by it), in 1937 this was akin to watching the Shuttle land...especially if you were, say, a ten year old boy, ten year old boys (And some ten year old girls) being crazy about trains since there have been trains.  Watching the Rocket roll past as it eased into the Mason City depot, then maybe heading down to the depot to get an up-close look at the latest in rail travel, had become a daily ritual. Today, though, would be different...

The Rocket passed another whistle board as it started threading between MCB&T plants three and four. There were always huge piles of just-made bricks lining the tracks here, and Simpson likely hated was a safety hazard of the first magnitude. These were unprotected, unguarded crossings, and the brick piles came to within twenty feet or less of the crossing that he was rolling up on. A driver had to stop with the front end of his car almost on top of the tracks to see. If it was a bigger vehicle...Simpson left that thought unfinished, and eased the throttle back another notch as they approached the huge pile of bricks, and the train started slowing as several hundred tons of momentum fought to keep it moving.

The pile of bricks...actually several piles of bricks with narrow ally-ways between them... was huge. It was easily a couple of stories tall, and 150 feet on a side, and so close to the tracks that his fireman actually gave a little involuntary flinch as the rolled past the near end of it...and that's probably just about when the front end of the bus rolled into view...and kept coming....

 Simpson instinctively reached up and yanked the brass brake handle all the way back into emergency as he and his fireman let go with all but involuntary curses. At 25 miles per hour or so, The Rocket was rolling towards the crossing at thirty-seven feet and change per second....Round that down to 35 feet per second, and assume they were still a hundred feet from the crossing when the bus popped into view, that gave Simpson just over three seconds to see the bus, grab the brake handle, and yank it back into emergency...even at only 25 mils per hour, it was a done deal even before George Simpson lunged for the brake handle...


...The same office-building-sized brick pile that was right on top of the tracks was just as close to the road, and completely blocked any view southward down the tracks until drivers were right on top of the crossing. On top of that, there were a slew of railroad sidings serving the plant, and the same road probably also crossed a couple of them, so Rex Simpson very possibly thought he was rolling up on one of the sidings as he approached the crossing.

On board the bus, twenty plus exuberant teenagers were talking and laughing and cutting up as teenagers are wont to do, probably blocking out the Rocket's horn...Rex Simpson cleared the brick pile, and, while still rolling towards the crossing, likely glanced left even as his front bumper crossed the first rail...his eyes went round with surprised fright and he desperately foot stabbed the brakes as he saw the front end of The Rocket's locomotive bearing down on the bus...

...George Simpson was actually looking down at the roof of the bus as he yanked the brake handle back, then, as the brakes grabbed and all of the Rocket's wheels locked up, he saw the bus disappear beneath the Locomotive's bright red bull-nose a micro-instant before he heard a solid crunching -CRA-WHUMP as a cloud of broken glass and wood splinters flew up in front of the windshield. Other objects...Oh ­GOD,it was kids...went tumbling and spinning out of the bus as it...

...Burst like a dropped watermelon. The big diesel locomotive's front end caught the bus just barely forward of directly amidships, snapping the body's wooden frame as if it was made of Popsicle sticks and tearing the thin metal side sheathing as if it was made if cardboard. The left side of the bus, from the bottom of the window frames down, wrapped around the front of the locomotive, while all of the rest of the body, wooden interior sheathing, roof , and seats, blew apart in a hail of splinters. The rear several feet of the body tore loose from the chassis and tumbled, breaking apart and tossing kids free to land near a second brick pile, it's occupants dazed and bruised, but for the most part, alive...

...The front half of the bus was a different story altogether. The occupants who were sitting at the point of impact were likely killed instantly then thrown clear as the bus came apart explosively, a couple of them landing in front of the train. 

The kids sitting in the right side seats...who had an instant to contemplate their fate when the left-side windows suddenly filled with red locomotive as they cleared the brick pile...were tossed clear as the right side tore away, taking the wooden interior sheathing and seats with it as the thin steel exterior sheathing rolled itself into a ball of mangled steel next to the tracks, A coupe of the kids fell in front of the train as they were ejected while others fell clear and rolled, a couple of them missing death by inches as the bus' shattered frame rails swept by above them, and the wheels of the locomotive passed by them so close that they could feel the heat and hear the rumble of the idling diesel over the scream of wheels against rails...

The kids, for the most part, literally never knew what hit them as the train hit the bus almost the very second it emerged from behind the brick pile. While some of the kids sitting on the right side of the bus may have gotten a glimpse of the front end of the locomotive a microsecond before it slammed into them, almost all of the survivors said that all they knew is that one second, they were talking, joking, and socializing and the next second there was a sudden, violent crash, and they were outside of the bus, flying through the air and landing next to the tracks. Much like the Rockville crash two years earlier, by some miracle of luck and physics, many of the survivors weren't badly injured...this time, however it was the kids in the back of the bus who caught the miracles.

  The rear six or eight feet of the bus body broke away from the rest of the bus and tumbled across the road, breaking apart like an egg shell as it did so. As it tumbled and came apart, the kids sitting on those perimeter benches were tossed clear..or more then likely, the bod broke apart around them.  Corwin Peer and LeVonne Helmke were sitting in those last two right-hand seats, both were tossed clear as the rear end of the bus body tumbled and broke apart. One second Corwin was looking into LaVonne's eyes as she giggled at his antics, and the next he was rolling across the ground. He finally stopped rolling, pushed himself up and leaned back on his arms, realizing that, by some miracle, all he had were a few bruises. His immediate next thought was 'LaVonne!!!' He stood up, looking around and spotted her, also pushing her self up off of the ground, several feet away (She's OK!!!).

No probably to it even though it's not mentioned anywhere...LaVonne's next thought as she pushed herself to a sitting position was something like 'Oh my God...COR!!! and she looked around even as he made it to her in a couple of giant steps, reached down, and and helped her up...the two of them took quick stock of their injuries and realized that neither one of them had been badly injured. I have a feeling that a huge hug and tears took place at that instant. Then they started looking for their friends, helping other kids up, and quickly realized that not everyone aboard the bus had been as lucky as they were.

Fifteen year old Robert Opedahl was another student who had been sitting in the rear of the bus...he glimpsed the front end of the locomotive just as it hit them, then the next thing he knew he was on the he told investigators 'I must have been knocked out for a few minutes'. He pulled himself to his feet...also suffering only minor injuries... and started walking towards the short order he ran up on the bodies of both the vocational class teacher and the English teacher who'd chaperoned the trip, as well as Rex Simpson, who was being administered to by Vern Mott...

...Mason City coal dealer Vern Mott had gone to the plant for a meeting of some kind, and was on his way out in his own car, following a hundred or so feet behind the bus. When the bus drew abreast of the near end of the brick pile, Mott was still a hundred feet away from it, with a clear view of the tracks. And, as the sole occupant of his car, he didn't have twenty-some teenagers making noise, so he heard the Rocket's horn...he looked towards the south to see the distinctive, bright red bull-nose of The Rocket's engine rolling towards the brick pile. He watched it's approach, admiring it's clean lines for a second before he looked in front of him, at the bus again...the bus was still moving.

Surely whoever was driving the thing heard the Rocket's horn...he's got to be stopping!!!  No...wait...
The bus bounced as the front wheels bumped across the first rail. 'Oh dear God!!!' He yelled to himself, foot-stabbing his own brakes as the rounded nose of the diesel locomotive appeared from behind the pile of bricks and buried itself in the side of the bus with an explosive 'CRA-WHUMP!, blowing the bus body apart as if a bomb had gone off in it, and tossing kids out as if they were shrapnel. He watched in horror as the engine ripped free and bounced away as the chassis and left side of the bus wrapped themselves around the nose of the locomotive, the right side of the bus wadding up like a balled up piece of foil and tumbling aside as well. The rest of the bus body was nothing more than a mass of shattered splinters.

One of the few photos still available of the accident scene, showing the remains of the bus wrapped around the front of The Rocket's diesel locomotive. The bus body was mostly wood, and burst like a dropped watermelon when it was hit. The only thing left is some of the left side exterior sheathing...which was metal...the truck frame, and a small bit of the body's left side window framing. Everything else...interior sheathing, windows, seats...and occupants...was ejected in the crash.

Mott watched in stunned disbelief for a couple of instants as as the chassis rode the nose of the locomotive, shedding parts as it was dragged for nearly five hundred feet, then bailed out of his car even before the Rocket shuddered to a stop. MCB&T employees...alerted by the crash..met him as they ran towards the scene. Mott didn't have far to run before he ran up on the first victim...a teenage boy, who was lying across one of the rails, his body cut in two by the Rocket's wheels. That horrible scene burned itself indelibly into his brain, then he heard a grown man sobbing and looked to see the driver, Rex Simpson, curled up next to the tracks. The bus driver had been tossed clear by the collision...but not before bouncing off of the front end of the Rocket's locomotive then, likely, getting dragged several yards by the bus as it rode the front of the locomotive. It was instantly obvious to Mott..who reached Simpson about the same time as some of the passengers and train crew...that Simpson, suffering massive internal injuries, was dying. He was. however, conscious and kept repeating 'Oh God...I didn't see it...'

One of the train crew ran to a near-by house, asked if there was a phone, and was likely told that yes there was, and that help was already on the way, and sure enough, they could already hear the wail of approaching sirens. Mason City's fire department had been fully paid, operating out of a single station, since 1909. The station was also the city hall complex, and the alarm room was in the same building, so when the bells hit and the guys started sliding the poles and heading for the rigs, they knew what they of the dispatchers likely opened the door out to the bay and yelled something like 'Bus hit by a train, guys!!!' to be answered by the shift's officer in charge telling him 'Get us some help on the way...heavy on the ambulances!!!

If the dispatcher was one of the good ones, his reply was likely something to the effect of  'One ahead of ya, already!

Whether the ambulance service was hospital based, funeral home based, or even that very rare gem of that era, a fire department ambulance, the dispatchers were wearing their fingers out dialing the phone, calling every number on their list under 'Ambulances', and a couple of dozen of them were soon on the way from both Mason City and surrounding communities. Meanwhile, the train crewman called the Rock Island division headquarters ten miles away, in Manly, and reported the accident. The train dispatchers started making the calls they the ICC, Rock Island's corporate headquarters, and the dozens of other notifications that needed to be made even as a question they may have asked themselves only minutes ago was likely answered...where Manley's ambulance was heading when it blew past only a couple of minutes earlier, siren screaming, headed for Mason City .

There is little or nothing on-line about MCFD's actions at the scene, ditto the various ambulance crews, but, with the miraculous lack of serious injuries, I have a feeling that the injured were transported pretty quickly...even the few serious to critical injuries were loaded and transported quickly as 1937 was still deeply in the era of 'Pre-hospital Care equals Ambulance With Big Engine And Lead-Footed Driver'. In other words there was no actual prehospital care other than splinting and bandaging, and attempting to stop bleeding. The injured kids were quickly placed on a stretcher, loaded, and transported.

We have to keep one thing in mind about all of these early accidents (Of alll kinds...not just train-school bus accidents) There was no true pre-hospital care at all. The EMS mantra of 'Airway, Airway, Airway' wasn't a mantra yet. Spinal Immobilization? T'warnt none. Back Board??...that's what's behind the basket in basketball, right?  Serious trauma patients,were two strikes down with the third strike coming in over the plate if they weren't real close to a hospital.

At least in Mason City the great majority of the survivors suffered only minor injuries, and the transports were short...Mason City had two hospitals, Mercy and Park, both only a couple of miles form the the patients were in Emergency Rooms with-in minutes of being loaded into an ambulance.

The crews who transported patients were the lucky all of these crashes, this was a truly horrible scene to work. Bodies were mangled, and dismembered, often beyond recognition, and had to be left in place as the initial parts of the investigation kicked off before being taken to a morgue, probably at one of the hospitals. There was reportedly blood all over the scene, even after the bodies were removed, for days afterward.

Word of the accident made it back to Renwick almost as quickly as it did to the ICC, and car loads of parents made the sixty mile trip to Mason City to search for their kids. Back in the day, when fire departments had to deal with what's now called a 'Mass Casualty Incident', or 'MCI' there was little or no documentation as to where any given patient was transported. The patients were just loaded in an ambulance...often two or three at a time...and the ambo driver then hauled ass to the hospital. This, of course, meant that officials, when approached by frantic parents, had no clue which hospital their kids were taken to, making for a heart-rending, frantic, frustrating search. This, in fact, is a problem that hasn't been fully solved to this day.

As noted above, Mason City had two hospitals at the time...Park and Mercy...and all of the injured were transported to one of those two hospitals. The kids with the worst injuries were taken to Park, while the lesser injured went to Mercy. The parents arrived in Mason City in force (I can only hope that the bodies and, even worse, parts of bodies had been at least covered if not removed before they got there) and went on that frantic search that's so much a part of this type of cataclysmic accident. And, just like the Rockville crash, for the most part they either had the weight of a house lifted off of their shoulders when they found their kids...bandaged, slightly battered, but alive...or devastating grief when they found that their children had died.

Of course this time the families of the driver and two teachers also lost a loved one. Also, not all of the patients in the two hospitals  survived...fifteen year old Lillian Cedar, suffering from a skull fracture, died at Park Hospital the day after the accident. Rex Simpson died on the way to the hospital.

Statements were taken from the train crew, and, after a couple of wreckers removed the mangled bus chassis from the front of the locomotive, The Rocket was allowed to proceed to Manly, where the new crew took over as planned. Though it wasn't stated anywhere, and I, sadly, couldn't find the ICC report for this one, I have a feeling that, at the very least, Engineer George Simpson was asked to return to Mason City, or at least to get in contact with ICC investigators, so he could give them a statement.

Thing is, this was probably one of the easiest investigations that the ICC (Or it's successor, the NTSB, for that matter) ever had to tackle...all any of the investigators had to do was look at the driver's sight-line at the crossing. Not only was the sight-line screwed up, there, basically, was no sight-line. The view south down the tracks was completely hidden from drivers exiting the plant until they were, very literally, right on top of the crossing, and train crews couldn't see vehicles approaching the crossing at all, until they were all but on the tracks.

This was a failing of both the railroad and, even more so, MCB&T. I mean, come can't tell me that the people who had to use that crossing daily didn't, when the brick pile grew high and large enough to hide the tracks, think to themselves 'This is an accident just waiting to happen'. And, of course, they were proven right. I have to wonder, had enough people...or maybe the right people... pointed this out to MCB&T's management, if something could or would have been done about the hazard, but that, of course, is a tragically moot point. No one did say anything, or if they did they were ignored. As result, ten people teens with their entire lives ahead of them, along with two dedicated teachers, and a well liked bus driver who was said to actually be a very competent and safe driver, died.

Of course we can't blame all of this on MCB&T's unfortunate placement of outside storage.  Rex Simpson (Broken record time again) just drove onto the tracks without looking, which is never a good idea. OK, I hear you guys...'Wait, Rob...he couldn't see the tracks...'

And you're right...he couldn't see down the tracks. But he could see the crossing in front of him. He could, and should, have taken what ever action was needed, up to and including stopping the bus and asking one of the kids to step out and take a look up the tracks, for him. (A policy that was put in place in Utah after the Sandy bus accident, and in rural school districts nation-wide after the Evans bus crash).

Even if he thought the crossing was one of the many sidings that served the plant, he still should have stopped...remember, The Rocket wasn't doing but about 25 mph, and maybe less, when it hit the bus, which was old, wood framed, and as fragile as china when involved with a collision with anything much bigger than a baseball. Getting hit by a switch engine would have likely been just as devastating as getting hit by a train on the main line. As I noted above, and as seems to be the case in just about all of theses accidents, Rex was considered to be very competent, very safe, and he was well liked and well respected by the kids who rode his bus. the only problem is, no matter how competent and safe you are, it doesn't take but one momentary lapse in judgement or attention, one mistake, to wipe that sterling record out and cause a tragedy.

  It still amazes me more than a little that, with the major train-school bus accidents piling up and the death toll from them rising, it still took more than two decades for State laws requiring school bus drivers to stop at railroad crossings to be federally mandated.  When such laws were finally put in place, it was said by many...and especially by legislators pontificating after they were on the books... that 'Every one of these accidents added a little bit of impetus to passing laws that insured the safety of Our Nations Children when riding to and from school.

Only thing is, I have a feeling that this was little comfort to the parents who lost children, the kids who lost friends, and the families of the two teachers and Rex Simpson.


List of those who died in the accident.

Rex Simpson, 35, driver of the bus.
 Lauren Morton, 29, teacher.
Miss Dorothy Ross, 24, teacher.
Patsy Turner, 16, student.
Donald Amosson, 15, student.
Norman A. Eggerth, 15, student.
Lowell Kelling, 15, student.
Albert Siemans, 16, student.
James Bell, 15, student.
Lillian Cedar, 15, student.

<***>Notes, Links, and Stuff<***>

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

March 1972

October 1971

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


This is another one that I really thought there'd be a little more info online about than there actually was. I would have really liked to have had the ICC report for this one, but it just wasn't to be. Oh, I was even able to find the ICC report number...but searching that very same number yielded, at best, a couple of dead links. It just wasn't gonna happen.

I did find a couple of good newspaper articles about the accident, as well as both another blog post and a second genealogy site that gave me the names of victims and participants, some of the accident details, and a decent personal interest angle. But this is still one that I wish I could have found more info on if for no other reason that it was the very first major loss of life grade crossing accident involving a diesel locomotive.

Sometimes though, I'm already behind the eight-all before I even start when I'm working on one of these posts, and I think this was one of them. Of course, as I've noted before, the further back you go, the less likely it is you're going to find much on any given incident unless it's truly infamous, truly legendary, or really unusual. and even then, sometimes there's less info than you'd expect.

This is especially true for motor vehicle accidents if, for no other reason, because they were (And still are) so common. Back in the day it wasn't that uncommon for a two car accident to kill five or more people because of lack of safety equipment and less than stellar highways. (Sadly, we seem to be swinging back in that direction despite loads of built-in safety and far better highways than existed even thirty years ago).

But I digress...I had to do a bit of speculating on this one, but I always do. I hope made it informative, and a good read while I was at it.

So...On to the notes!


When the Rocket went in service, there were already several other diesel powered streamliners in service throughout the country, and they were racking up one statistic that wasn't made known to the public, that stat being the number of vehicles that were being struck at grade crossings.

There was a reason that the streamliners were being involved in so many grade crossing accidents, and it was, simply put, because they were diesels. Before the first streamliner...the legendary Pioneer Zephyr...went in service in 1934, the great majority of road locomotives were steam engines, with a few electric locomotives thrown into the mix.

Motorists were used to looking for the moving column of smoke that marked the head end of oncoming trains, and that was, during the day, often visible well before the train itself came into view. In several instances, when the vehicles driver survived the collision with a diesel powered streamliner, they claimed that they didn't realize a train was coming because they didn't see any smoke. Also, the diesel locomotive's air horn sounded nothing like a steam locomotive's whistle (Note here...back then the air horns of diesel locomotives were single chime horns, which sounded more like a truck horn than what we think of as a train horn.) and it's not at all impossible to conceive of a driver not familiar with the sound of a streamliner's air horn wondering just what the heck he was hearing and not realizing it was a train.

Interestingly enough, in areas served by electric locomotives...the Pennsylvania Railroad's iconic  GG-1 comes instantly to mind...motorists were far more familiar with the sound of a locomotive air horn as the GG-1 (And other electric locomotives in use in the Northeastern United States ) used the same air horns that were installed on Diesel locomotives.

Though grade crossing accidents involving the new stream-liners were unusually common during the first several years they were in service, the Mason City bus crash was the first major loss of life accident involving a diesel locomotive. Sadly, it wouldn't be the last.

The proliferation of grade crossing accidents involving diesel locomotives had been seen as a problem well before the Mason City crash, and railroad executives as well as Government regulators probably burned a few barrels of midnight oil and scratched their chins raw trying to come up with a solution to the problem.

One of the biggest factors in the number of collisions was thought to be the lack of that moving smoke column to give drivers a heads-up that a train was coming. Just between all of you and me, I think that was a huge oversimplification of the problem...the real problem was drivers not paying attention, a problem that had been worked on since railroads came into being, but it was also a problem that they could at least try do something about. Something had to be developed to take the place of the smoke column as an attention getting device.

Enter a Chicago firefighter named Jerry Kennely, who was assigned as the driver on one of CFD's truck companies. Like apparatus drivers world wide he was frustrated by motorists who seemingly ignored his rig's lights and sirens. He often used the rig's spotlight, sweeping it side to side, to grab other drivers' attention. This was, in fact,a very effective trick, but he often needed a third hand to do it, so he rigged a windshield wiper motor to the spotlight.

Now, Frank Mars...of Mars Candy Company fame...was not only creator of various and sundry well loved candy bars, he was also a fire buff of the first magnitude. And he lived in Chicago. And he'd seen Jerry's motor equipped spot light in action. So he visited the station Jerry was assigned to, had a talk with him, ideas were exchanged, patents obtained, and The Mars Light was born. And yes, the first ones were indeed made at The Mars Candy Company.

The Mars Light was (And is) an oscillating warning light with the light moving in a 'Figure 8' pattern, and it became a huge hit with the fire service...and wouldn't ya know that, shortly after the Mason City crash, an executive of The Rock Island Line saw a Chicago fire rig running a fire call, noted the Mars Light, and thought 'HMMMM'.

So more meetings were arranged, a larger test light was fabricated and installed on a freight locomotive, and knocked it out of the park. Now, I'm having to leave a lot of stuff out here...this is, after all, just a note...but Patents were obtained for the railroad version of the light, and some of the first installations were on the EMD TA series locomotives on the Rockets. I have a feeling that crossing accidents decreased by at least a little because of that oscillating white beam.

A video, courtesy of the Colorado Railroad Museum, of a Mars light in action on former Rio Grande R.R. F9 Diesel locomotive #5771...the last of these classic locomotives in service with the Rio Grande.  It shows the light's effectiveness very handily, as well as showing why the both Railroad and Emergency Vehicle warning light known as the 'Mars 888'. Look at the pattern the moving light's throwing against the trees at about fifty seconds into the video. Interestingly enough, the original installations of the Mars Lights, on the Rockets, was the reverse of this one, On the Rockets' EMC locomotives the Mars Light was below, rather than above, the primary headlight, as shown below.

The Kansas City Rocket at the station, some time after the Mason City accident, in Wichita, showing the locomotive's Mars light installation.

Several other companies got in on the act, most notably Pyle National with their Gyralite, which used a reflector that oscillated in a circular pattern and was first installed on locomotives in 1948, but Mars was the original, the best known, the only one whose lights used that very very effective (And patented) '888' pattern and the only one that supplied warning lights to both railroads and the fire service. They also had the coolest slogan of the bunch ('The Light From Mars').

Mars is still around...very much so in a subsidiary of Tri Lite Corporation, and their lights are still installed on fire apparatus and locomotives to this day. And trust me, they are uber-effective. Chesterfield, Petersburg, and Richmond Virginia have all used Mars Lights on their fire rigs at one time or the other, and in the days before LED lights, when there were fewer front-facing warning lights on the rigs, you noticed the Mars Light well before you noticed the others.

As for locomotive Mars Lights...they are both bigger and brighter than the FD warning lights, and were some of the most effective warning lights ever installed on locomotives. Sometimes you could see that oscillating beam for miles before the train actually hove into view. And there's very little cooler looking than watching a Mars Light equipped locomotive approaching a crossing in light rain or fog. Both Mars Lights and Gyralites are still manufactured and installed on locomotives, but both are, sadly, passing to the wayside as they are replaced by less expensive...and in most peoples' opinions less effective... alternating ditch lights.

. Of course, all the warning lights in the world wouldn't have prevented the Mason City crash, but if the Mars Lights and Gyralites prevented even one driver from driving in front of an oncoming train in the years after that accident, they proved their worth.


I posted this as a note in the Rockville Md post, but, as both that accident and the Mason City accident  involved high school kids, it bears noting here as again, I'll mention the lack of a 12th grade in that era.  I have a sneaking suspicion that several readers have picked up on the fact that none of the kids on the bus, most of whom were seniors, had reached the age of 17 yet, despite the fact that the accident happened in October, very soon after the start of the school year. There's a reason for this, of course. In 1937, there was no 12th grade, and kids were 16 (And sometimes 15, depending on where during the year their birthday fell ) when they reluctantly dragged themselves out of bed on the first day of their senior year and 17 (And occasionally 16, ditto) when they marched in to the auditorium or onto the football field to the strains of 'Pomp and Circumstance'.

This, of course, also meant that the four years of high school...Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior...were each pushed back a year, making eighth grade the Freshman year of high school.

This changed in 1941, when the 12th grade was added in the great majority of school systems nationwide. This, of course, meant that everyone who started the 1939-40 school year off in one of the four years of high school suddenly found themselves with an extra year of high school ahead of them. The 1939 11th grade class would have graduated as the class of '40, and would have been the last 11th grade class to be seniors. This also meant that there wasn't a class of 1941, because the rising 11th graders were now Juniors, and there was no actual Senior class. Ninth grade became the Freshman class, and eighth grade was knocked back to being the last year of junior high. 

I don't know what would have been worse...being in 10th grade in 39-40, thinking 'Next year's my last year'...and suddenly having two more years to go before you graduate, or being in 8th grade in '39-40, and having to spend two years as a Freshman! 


Back during the Thirties (And, as the video I'm getting ready to post notes, for many years afterwards) Renwick Independent School gave it's students and faculty, and the citizens of Renwick (All 432 strong back in 1937) a real treat on the last day of school. They packed all of the kids and teachers onto buses and cars and headed to a local park for food, fun, ball games, and a general awesome time...a day that was looked forward to all year and the kind of laid back, fun filled day that, sadly, has become a thing of the past in our hectic world today.

We're interested in one particular last-day picnic, though. The one that occurred om May 21, 1937, just five months before the Mason City bus accident. One of the participants filmed that year's picnic using a very early home movie camera, and watching the film we see that kids really haven't changed that much when it comes to the art of 'Having Fun', but we also see something else...some of the last pics, moving or still, taken of some of these kids. 

Early in the video one of the narrators notes that it can't be any later than 1937 because of the people included in the video...though he doesn't state it, he's referring, at least in part, to the fact that several of the kids seen in the video were killed in the bus crash only five months later. One of the victims...sixteen year old Patsy, in fact, identified by the female narrator, walking with a group of her friends, at 2:21 into the clip. Several of the other kids seen in the video, though not identified by name as being involved in the accident,, were either killed or injured in the crash. And everyone in the video knew everyone who was on that bus. 

Early on in the video, you see a kid in a white shirt who's bursting with energy waving at the camera as he runs across the frame...the very same kid seen waving at the camera on the right side of the still frame for the video.That's Corwin Peer (His cousin's the film's female narrator, BTW). Speaking of Corwin, as well as his girlfriend...


There was a tiny bright speck of light amid all the tragedy at Mason City...but it took a few years for anyone to realize it.

Remember Corwin Peer and LaVonne Helmke? The teenage couple who grabbed the last two seats at the back of the bus? Remember Corwin thinking, first and foremost of his girlfriend as he regained consciousness after getting ejected in the accident?

The two of them dated all the way through high school, and got married on New Years Eve, 1942. They lived a long, fruitful life, and were married for sixty-four years...Corwin passed away on Jan 16th 2006, and LaVonne passed away just under three years later, on Jan 1, 2009, a day after the 66th anniversary of her and Cor's ( just know that was his nickname, right up to the day he died) marriage.


Wasn't that much on-line about the Mason City accident, but at least one of the links was a pretty awesome blog for car enthusiasts...

Blog post about the Mason City that also goes into detail about the history of the Rock Island Rockets as well as early streamliners in general. The video I posted is also posted here. 'Throwing Wrenches' is an absolutely awesome blog if you're a car nut, BTW...when you finish the post about the bus crash, check out the rest of the blog. Be warned'll end up in front of your computer reading for a few hours!   An article from an Iowa History and genealogy site that also bears exploring if you like history. 


  1. I grew up in Mason City, and I remember the Brick and Tile plant very clearly, as well as the layout of the yard, the tracks, the road and street configuration, the two hospitals (Park later became Memorial, and later still joined with Mercy and is now Mercy-North Iowa Medical Center.) Renwick High School merged with two neighboring districts into Boone Valley Community Schools and disbanded in 1987. Mason City's tallest building was, and is, the 8-story Brick and Tile Building, so named after it was purchased by the company in 1947, and it retains that name today, though it has changed hands twice since then. I had several friends whose fathers worked at Brick and Tile, which itself went out of business in the 1970's and was gradually phased out and demolished. My own father worked for the Rock Island railroad for several years. Yet I had NEVER heard of this terrible incident until about one year ago! It was basically forgotten, apparently so tragic and unspeakable that it was never spoken of. That shouldn't be; when people choose to forget, they fail to remember - and then, they make the same mistakes that led to this tragedy in the first place.

  2. I spent a summer in 2006 doing an internship in Mason City and my parents grew up somewhat close to this high school, yet I had never heard of this accident. I looked at the Historic Aerials website, which has very detailed satellite views of Iowa dating back to the 1930's, and I think the brick factory must have been a little north of the location you indicate.

  3. Thanks for posting. My great aunt was Patsy Turner. My mom says Patsy's parents (my great grandparents) never recovered from the grief and shock of the tragedy. I really appreciated seeing the film clip with Patsy in it. Thanks again.