Monday, March 21, 2016

Rockville, Md Train Bus crash April 11th, 1935

Rockville, Md Train/School Bus Crash
April 11th, 1935



Field Trips! That awesomeness that only school-age kids really and truly understand. Scrambling to get a permission slip signed and turned in, yawning as you and your friends gather at school far far earlier than normal, listening to the trip sponsor's immediately forgotten recital of rules of conduct for the trip, a lunch stop at a Micky-Dees, Burger King or other similar eatery specializing in the art of fast food, and a bouncy, jostling trip on a school bus (Or if you're really lucky, a chartered bus) to a museum/historic site/what-have-you. The next best thing to a day off from school.

Upon arriving at the aforementioned historically and educationally significant site, you very quickly learn to 'OOOH and AAAHHH at the appropriate times to give your teachers and chaperons the impression that you are, in fact, learning something to make their efforts to bring the trip together worthwhile. Of course any kid worth his salt will tell you that education and learning are not foremost on their agenda when they climb aboard the bus on that early-early morning. The most important part of the day as far as they're concerned is getting to socialize with their friends, snagging a souvenir (And if you're really lucky, a T-shirt), and generally having a good time.

Of course, field trips are not new concepts by any means...they've been a fact of life for school kids pretty much since motorized transportation and paved roads made them possible. I went on a couple (Of both the school bus and chartered bus variety) when I was in elementary school, nearly fifty years ago, and, as kids had done for decades before and have done for decades since, always had a blast.

Generally, everything went as planned and everyone went home in one piece. Both of the field trips I remember (One to Jamestown, the other to historical sites in Richmond) went smoothly, with the biggest glitches during either trip being very slow lunch service at a drive-in somewhere on US Route 460 and a couple of kids who went home with friends without telling their parents where they were going once we got back to now long gone Boykins Elementary.

On the rare occasions that things did go wrong on a field trip, though, they went bad wrong. Two high school field trips went tragically wrong about eighty years ago...thirty years before my field trips to Jamestown and Richmond. Both during the mid-Thirties. Both on the home-bound trip. Both because the bus driver (I'm beginning to feel like a broken record here) drove his bus in front of a train.

For the first of this tragic pair of field trips we head for suburban D.C, to Rockville, MD, and roll back time to a dreary, drizzly April evening in 1935.  Today Rockville is part of the Washington-Baltimore Metro Area and is deeply inside the huge, uber-congested ring of urban and suburban communities that surround Washington, DC. There isn't any rural land anywhere within 20 miles of Rockville today but back in 1935 it was still a small town sitting smack dab in the middle of farm country, with a  population of just under 2000...a far cry from the seventy or so thousand souls who call it home eighty years later.

While we're at it, we're also going to visit the lovely little town of Williamsport, MD. Williamsport was originally the western terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and was still an important stop on the canal when it was extended further west in the mid 19th century, continuing in that role until the canal closed in 1924. Williamsport is just shy of sixty miles northwest of Rockville, and, with a population of 1770...a number that's stayed pretty constant over the last 80 years... was even smaller than Rockville back in 1935.

That was the year that Louise Funk...a young, energetic, pretty, and popular science teacher at Williamsport High School...organized an early April field trip to a science fair at The University of Maryland, in College Park. This wouldn't be an all day field trip, but would rather be an after school trip, leaving Williamsport as soon as school got out for the day on Thursday, April 11th, 1935. The original game plan for the trip was to let the kids ride to College Park with parents who volunteered to drive, but this idea was quashed for several reasons, the biggest likely being logistics. There were 27 kids going, which meant that, even with five or six kids per car, there would be at least five cars to keep together, which also meant five vehicles that could break down. Or get lost. Or have an accident. With a bus, however, there was less to go wrong, everyone was in one place and it was just easier to keep things organized.

So the decision was made...a bus it would be. Percy Line...who worked for one of the bus owners who was contracted to provide pupil transportation for Washington County...was hired for the after school trip, and on that cloudy Thursday afternoon 27 kids climbed aboard a bright blue 1933 Diamond T/Hackney school bus, which pulled out of the Williamsport High School lot at about 4:45 PM.

A 1935 Hackney School bus with the exact same bus body as the bus involved in the Rockville crash, though it's on a Federal truck chassis rather than a Diamond T Chassis.  Note how small the windows in the doors are compared to modern buses (or even buses from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies).

Today, aboard a modern bus, this would be about an hour and a quarter trip at that time of afternoon... straight down I-70 and 270, then a quick jog east on I-495 and south on US 1 and you're on the U.Md. Campus...but back 80 years ago there were no Interstates, buses were slower, the roads were narrower and the trip (Possibly with a meal stop somewhere along the way) took closer to two and a half hours. As they neared Rockville, the bus turned off of  what's now Maryland State Route 355...Rockville Pike...onto Baltimore Road, and crossed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at a protected grade crossing near the Rockville passenger station. This crossing was actually kind of high tech for the era, protected by an automatic bell signal (But no lights) that kicked in when an approaching train closed a circuit as well as a flagman who was on duty from 6AM to 10 PM. The bells stayed silent as they approached, the watchman staying dry in his shack and the bus trundled across, headed for College Park. Louise Funk, sitting behind Percy Line, mentally took note of the crossing.

They rolled into College Park at about 7:15 PM and were there for a little over three hours, attending both a lecture and the science fair itself before getting ready to head back to Williamsport. Percy went to a corner store to grab a paper, read it on the bus while eyeing the weather, then went inside to find Louise Funk.  The two of them conferred for a bit as the weather got nastier, and decided to head for home about thirty minutes early. This, of course, meant gathering 27 teenagers and getting them on the bus, a task that probably took a little doing. In fact, before they could head back, they had to all but drag WHS Senior class president Bill Gower back to the bus, as he was hooked on one of the exhibits...a spinning rubber ball balanced on a single, vertical stream of water. 

When they managed to get him back to the bus....which was probably already idling as well as already loaded with the rest of his classmates, who were probably exhorting him to hurry up because they had realized just how tired and ready they were to be on the way home they were...the majority of the seats, including the seats in the rear of the ride where he and several of his friends held court on the trip to College park, were already filled. Wilma Newey, who was sitting on the right side, two rows back from the front, looked up as Bill walked down the aisle, then slid towards the window to let him slide in next to her...a decision that would save his life. Wilma and Jane Staley, who was sitting in front of them, next to Glenn Anderson, then likely continued the conversation they had been having as Bill and Glenn joined in...

...Bill wasn't the only member of WHS' class of '35 who decided to sit in the front on the trip home...his pretty seatmate and one of her besties had made the same decision. Sixteen year old Jane Staley sat in the back of the bus with Wilma and several more of her friends on the way to College Park, but she'd felt claustrophobic back there and decided, when they returned to the bus for the home-bound trip, to claim a couple of seats in the front of the bus for herself and Wilma...teen girls, then as now, tended to travel in giggly, gossipy packs. This decision would not only save her life, but WIlma's as well.

With everyone finally aboard they pulled away from U.Md. at about 10:35 PM, with a long ride ahead of them...the best speed Percy Line could make in the bus was between 30 and 35 MPH, and with it starting to drizzle and the roads being wet, it was a good bet he wouldn't be making that much speed for a good portion of the trip. They'd be 1:00 AM or later getting home.

As I noted above, the route back home would have been far more round-about back than it is now. Now, they'd have gone up Route 1 to 495, and just reversed the route on Interstates 270 and 70, arriving back in Williamsport around midnight or a shade before. On that drizzly Thursday night, though, when they left College Park they probably rolled through the U Md campus out to University Lane (Now State Route 193) and took a winding, meandering half-loop through Prince Georges County and Montgomery County, Md before hanging a right on Veirs Mill Rd. Veirs Mill should have been a straight shot out to Rockville Pike...State Route 355...and a near straight shot home, but back then Veirs Mill Rd, instead of crossing the tracks and 'T' ing into Rockville Pike. apparently made a 90 degree right-hand turn just north of the tracks  and became 1st Street (Now State Route 28). They would have rounded that 90 degree curve onto 1st Street and then, a couple of blocks later, hung a left on Baltimore Road. This would take them to Route 355, where they'd hang a final right and head for Williamsport....only thing was, their trip would end violently and tragically before they ever hung that last right onto Rockville Pike.
A satellite view of the Rockville area today, with the former site of the crossing circled in red and the area of detail in the Satellite view below outlined in white.  The blue dashes denote the route, along Veirs Mill Rd, First Street, and Baltimore Rd, taken by the bus. While Veirs Mill and First Street both cross the tracks via bridges today, neither street crossed the tracks eighty years ago. Veirs Mill Rd most likely simply made a 90 degree turn to become First Street.
Former site of the Baltimore Rd Crossing, with the bus and train directions of travel as well as Baltimore Road's 1935 easement indicated. The crossing was closed and removed in 1937, when the original Veirs Mill Rd bridge was completed... one of the very first crossings eliminated by FDR's push to replace as many grade crossings as possible with bridges.The Rockville area has grown astronomically and changed drastically in in the last eighty years, but the crossing site is still easy to find, thanks to the fact that Baltimore Rd and the railroad...now CSX...both occupy  the exact same easement they did back in 1935...except, of course, for the missing crossing. Today Baltimore Road dead ends at a couple of dumpsters in the parking lot of a business on the east side of the tracks...the direction the bus approached from.


At about the same time the bus pulled off enroute home B&O locomotive 5550...a big 4-8-2 Mountain type passenger engine under the command of veteran B&O engineer James Shewbridge...thundered through Point of Rocks Md...about 26 miles west of Rockville...one minute early, dragging the 10 cars of Train#12 eastbound at about 60 MPH. About 10 miles further on, near Barnesville, Md, the engine's big 70” drivers began slipping on the wet rails as they crested a grade and he dumped sand to increase traction, emptying the sand dome. Ten miles further on...about six miles from Rockville...the fireman, William Busey, settled onto his seat box on the left side of the cab and stuck his head out of the cab's open picture window to keep a look-out. While the area was dozens of times more rural back then than it is now, it was still one of the most congested areas of Eastern Md and they had a slew of grade crossings between there and D.C.

It was coming up on about 11:25PM as Train #12 rolled into the outskirts of Rockville. Their speed was creeping north of this section of the line's 60MPH speed limit, so Engineer Shewbridge pulled the throttle closed and let her drift, watching the spreed register sl-o-o-o-wly drop. Taking the throttle off of a locomotive pulling a couple of thousand tons of train is not like taking your foot off of the accelerator of your Mustang or Camaro...that two thousand tons of momentum is going to fight valiantly to keep you from slowing down.

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You can make a bus load of teenagers stay quiet...all you have to do is wake them up for school at the customary 6AM or so, have them do a full day of school, then send them on a two and a half hour road trip to spend a few hours at a science fair. By the time they head back home they're going to be absolutely beat. Unfortunately, if their driver also gets up as early or even earlier and performs a full day's work before setting out on this journey, he's going to be pretty bushed, too.

Lets set the stage here. University Lane winds through southwestern Prince Georges County and southeastern Montgomery County like a snake, making a long, deep, flattened half circle before finally reaching Veirs Mill Road. When they finally cut over on 1st Street off of Veirs Mill, then turned on Baltimore Road they had already been on the road for pushing thirty minutes and they still had an almost two hour ride ahead of them. By then, all twenty seven kids are either asleep or very nearly so. A few were awake and talking quietly. The big Diamond T's Hercules straight six engine is droning monotonously and the only light is from the dash lights. The light rain's hissing against the windshield as the single wiper, in front of the driver, slip-slaps back and forth. Percy Lane and Louise Funk are among the very few aboard who were even vaguely awake. .

Louise Funk had been reminding Percy of possible hazards as they headed back...she was responsible for these kids and she wanted to make sure Percy didn't do something like go thundering into a hairpin turn at a blazing speed of thirty or so miles per hour. I have a theory about what was going on with Percy right at that moment, though...remember, he'd been up all day, too. I think that, even with making all the turns he had to negotiate to wind through Rockville, he had become about half way or so hypnotized by the drone of the bus engine and the monotonous slap of the wiper.  He was nodding in reply to the teacher, but he may not have been hearing her. Of course, as it turned out, she never warned him about the crossing in the first place.

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An aerial view of the crossing from the early or mid Thirties, looking north along the tracks, with the directions of travel of both the bus and train indicated.. Rockville's railroad station is mid frame, to the west... left... of the tracks, pretty much hidden by trees. The small passenger shelter to the east of the tracks that was mentioned in the ICC report as possibly blocking Line's view of the train is visible  mid-frame, directly across from the station, and just about even with the end of the red arrow. But did it actually obscure his vision...hmmm...if only we had a drivers eye view from that time period... Photo from 'The Rockville Tragedy' by and used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson

While the Rockville  area has changed so completely that trying to do a Street View Drivers Eye View was not only pointless, but impossible, I actually found something even better....a drivers eye view, looking in the direction that the train was approaching the crossing from, taken very soon after the accident...probably one of the ICC investigation photos. The low embankment to the right of the tracks continued to the south of the crossing...behind the photographer...and is the embankment that the bus came to rest against.

The passenger shelter mentioned in the ICC report is prominent, mid frame. While the train probably would have been hidden by the shelter for a couple of seconds, it's pretty obvious that, even with the nasty weather that night, had Percy Line stopped the bus and looked to his right, he'd have had absolutely no problem seeing the train's headlight, and indeed, the train itself as it emerged from behind the passenger shelter. This was, as noted in the ICC report, a well lit crossing, and locomotive headlight's even 80 or so years ago, were bright. Had he been stopped, he'd have seen first the glow of the headlight, then the train itself, waited for it to pass, and the kids' biggest problem would have been trying to stay awake in class the next day. But...sadly...he didn't stop.

Also, note the RR cross-buck sign on the extreme left of the frame...there's a better picture of it below, but keep that little box below the cross buck in mind...  Photo from 'The Rockville Tragedy' by and used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson
Looking to the east, across the crossing, the day after the accident.  The bus would have been coming towards the camera, but the cross-buck signs were identical.  This crossing was not only protected by an electric bell that kicked in as an approaching train closed an electrical circuit, it also had a watchman assigned to it from 6 AM to 10 PM...if you look you can see him standing next to the crossbuck sign on the opposite side of the tracks, on the far left center of the pic, with his stop sign leaning against the ground. Look for the upside-down stop sign, it's far easier to spot than the watchman himself.

If you look to the left of the crossbuck on the far side of the crossing, you can see a post with a black object mounted on it...that's the automatic bell that began sounding when a train approached. There would be an identical one on this side of the crossing..it's apparently hidden by the telephone pole. It's visible hard by the crossbuck in the picture above this one, and is also visible in a picture further down.


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They rolled around a pretty good curve to the left almost immediately after turning onto Baltimore Road. Once they came out of that curve the Baltimore Rd B&O crossing was maybe 400 yards ahead of them so Percy probably never quite accelerated to more than about 25 MPH.

 Now, while 1935 was 80 years ago and part of a far far simpler, less technology-driven era, that doesn't mean hazards were ignored. The hazard that grade crossings presented to automobile traffic had been recognized for a couple of decades and several things had been done to attempt to reduce that hazard. Automatic crossing signals had been developed back in the mid teens...The venerable and now completely obsolete Wig-Wag signal had been developed and placed in service in 1914, mostly in the west and Midwest, while automatic bells and flashing lights, with single flashing lights mounted on the cross-buck rather than the alternating light signals we're familiar with today, were developed and placed in service in the eastern part of the country. Some protected crossings, however, dispensed with the flashing light and were equipped with only the automatic bell.

There were button reflector RR Crossing warning sign a football field or so away from crossings, backed up by the standard cross-buck signs between 25 and fifty feet from the crossing, also on both sides. Button reflectors... small, round reflectors placed within the letters of the RR Crossing warning sign, and sometimes the crossbucks,...glowed in a vehicle's headlights, making the sign visible at night . Crossing guards were assigned to some crossings to stop traffic when a train passed.

The crossing at Rockville was protected by a combination of the above. There was an automatic bell signal...but no flashing light or Wig-Wag...on both sides of the crossing. The crossing also had a watchman assigned to it, but...despite the fact that, by law, he was supposed to be there until at least midnight... he was only there from 6AM to 10 PM, so he'd headed for home nearly an hour and a half  before the bus turned on Baltimore Road. Button reflector warning signs guarded both sides of the crossing, of course, and when the crossing watchman left he placed a red lantern in a open-fronted box beneath the cross bucks on either side of the crossing to warn drivers that the crossing was unguarded.

Louise Funk saw both the red lantern's flickering glow and the button reflectors on the cross buck sign glinting and glimmering in the bus' headlights as they approached the crossing, so she pretty well assumed that Percy saw them, too. Another car was coming towards them as they approached the tracks, but the lights weren't blinding her, so she also assumed they weren't blinding Percy either. And, as they started up the slight grade leading to the crossing, Percy slowed the already slow-moving bus even more, so the teacher assumed he realized the crossing was there, and most importantly, was stopping for it, therefore she didn't remind him of it.

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Train #12 was still rolling at about 58MPH when Engineer Shewbridge spotted the whistle post for the Baltimore Rd crossing in the big 4-8-2's head light...he reached up left handed and started yanking the whistle lanyard in the traditional long-long-short-long crossing signal, waiting until he was just a bit more then 200 yards from the crossing before he reached up and flipped the air valve that started ringing the locomotive bell. He was sitting on the right side of the cab, looking out of the picture window and down the forty or so foot length of the boiler, so he had absolutely no view to the left of the locomotive...where the bus was approaching from the north...but he could, of course see traffic approaching from the right...south...side of the crossing and as he cleared Rockville's B&O station, 100 yard and change from the crossing he saw headlights approaching and watched as a car bounced across the tracks. He reached up and began repeating the crossing signal in case another vehicle was following it.

On the left side of the cab, Busey saw the same car Shewbridge had spotted as it cleared the crossing, and heard the whistle start it's mournful wail again as the engineer started repeating the crossing signal. At just about the same time, as they cleared the westbound passenger shelter across the tracks from the station, he also saw another pair of headlights approaching from the north, realizing that it was a larger vehicle...maybe a trucker using Baltimore Road to cut over to Rockville Pike. Then he realized it was a bus that seemed to be slowing...noo wait...it was still coming...

Busey went saucer-eyed as the bus rolled across the first track of the two track main line and turned his head to shout a warning...likely the traditional 'BIG-HOLE HER!!!' that meant 'Put the brakes in emergency now!!!'...across the cab to Shewbridge.

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Another view of the crossing, looking towards the west, with a close-up view of the crossbuck on the side.This was taken the day after the accident,...people likely gathered here all day long despite the obviously still nasty weather. The bus would have been moving from right to left onto the crossing in the larger picture...The Rockville R.R Station is visible beyond the crossing. The small white structure partially hidden by the crowd in the larger picture, and partially hidden by the 'No Watchman On Duty' sign in the pic of the crossbuck is the watchman's shack.  Note again the 'No Watchman On Duty...' sign, with the box for the red lantern below it. Photo used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson


Another view of the crossing, with a train crossing.  At one time the pic was marked showing both the point of impact and the point where the bus ended up, but the markings have faded with age, though the arrow showing the bus' direction of travel has survived.. The bus would have been moving right to left, and the front of the train's roughly where the point of impact would have been. When he took the picture, the photographer was standing on the embankment the bus landed against...the bus would have landed just below where he's standing and maybe slightly behind him.

Note the locomotive's engineer leaning out of the right side side 'Picture' window of the cab. You can see why he has to rely on his fireman...who would be doing the same on the left side of the cab when he wasn't tending the firebox and boiler...to warn him of hazards on the left side of the tracks.The locomotive's boiler would have blocked everything to the left, as well as blocking his forward view.

The crossing watchman's standing to the left of the train, right side of the picture. Just behind him, mounted on a post, you can see the crossing's automatic bell. This is the bell that Percy Line heard just before the train hit them, and with it's proximity to the road, and the crossing, it's easy to see that it was this bell...not the one on the locomotive...that Percy heard.  Photo used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson




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One of the wild things about this one is the fact that Washington County, like probably every school system in the country, did have a policy in place requiring all school buses to stop at crossings. It read:

'All buses must be brought to a complete stop at least 25 feet from any steam or electric railway crossing. The driver must be sure that there is no danger from approaching trains or cars before proceeding across the tracks'

And, as Louise Funk watched in shock Percy completely disregarded that policy and drove onto the crossing, and as he did several things happened in the same instant, and not a one of them was good.

It's likely that, at about the same time William Busey shouted 'Big-hole her!!!' across 5550's cab, Louise Funk and Percy Line both went deer-in-the-headlights as the locomotive headlight suddenly flooded the interior of the bus with light, and they saw the front end of the big steamer coming at them at what appeared to be just less than light speed. At that same instant, both probably finally heard 5550's steam whistle as it screamed a futile warning. Whatever the two of them said at that instant has been lost to history but what we do know is that Percy did the only thing he possibly could do...he punched it. If they'd been in a car they might have cleared the crossing...by the skin of their teeth, with pulses pounding, and heart racing, but they would've probably made it. But they were in a school bus...a 1933 Diamond T school bus...that was pretty much fully loaded and was powered by an anemic, by today's standards, six cylinder engine of about 100 horsepower. When Percy foot-mashed the accelerator, the bus didn't exactly leap, though it did jerk forward and pick up just enough speed to get the front half of the bus out of the way...

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Shewbridge had no idea just what Busey saw in their path, but even as he yanked the brake valve back hard into emergency and the locked wheels started screaming against steel rails, knew there wasn't a chance in hell they'd even slow down before they reached the crossing, much less get stopped. They barely felt the impact...a slight shudder, if that...but they did hear the solid, deadly 'CRWUMP!!! of metal smashing metal and saw sparks and fire fly from the front of the locomotive. Shewbridge glimpsed something big tumbling as they slid past the crossing...but he also saw smaller objects bouncing and tumbling, and when Busey said 'We just got a bus' he tried to tell himself that those smaller objects weren't what he knew they were.

He disengaged the locomotive brakes to keep the drivers from flattening and let the brakes on the train's ten passenger cars drag them to a stop. The train finally shuddered to a stop with 5550's front end just over 3100 feet from the crossing, and the last car's observation platform a shade more than 2000 feet from the crossing. Shewbridge and Busey climbed from the cab trudged up the track to the front of their locomotive, where they came upon a gruesome sight...two badly mangled bodies sprawled on the engine's front platform. 


The driver of the car that crossed the tracks just before the bus was a long-time Rockville resident and golf pro at Rockville's Manor Club named E.L. Stevens. The crossing bells had started clanging just about the time he reached the post they were mounted on, so, as drivers still do to this day, he punched it to get across the tracks before the train reached the crossing. The car he was driving was a roadster...back then it meant a sporty, two seater just as it does today, but back then it also meant only very rudimentary protection from the weather. He had the car's canvas top up, and the side curtains...which had only small openings in them for the driver to see to the side through...down, and as he crossed he saw the train's headlight through the opening in the left side curtain. about even with the station which was a football field or so away, coming fast,

Roadsters have always been sporty vehicles and while a modern Ford Focus would probably eat Stevens' 1930s-era roadster for lunch now, Steven's car was still peppy and agile for it's day, so its acceleration was more than enough to get him across the tracks with room to spare. The bus was maybe 175 feet away when he saw it coming towards him before he crossed the tracks, and it was only about 20 yards from the tracks when he passed it. Stevens suddenly went cold as he he had one of those bad, bad feelings every one of us gets once in a while. He foot-stabbed his own brakes, opened the door as his car jerked to a stop, and looked back, hoping and praying that he was wrong, that the bus driver was actually slowing down, but his bad feeling was right on the money...he looked back just in time to see 5550, sparks flying from her locked wheels, broadside the bus, ripping it in two and punting the two halves of the bus like a pair of footballs...

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A lot of these kids never knew what hit them until it was over...if at all. Oh a few were awake, talking quietly as rain pattered against the windows, and a couple of them glanced out through the windshield to see the button reflectors on the crossing sign glowing back at them, but none of them heard the crossing bells or the train's whistle, and no one saw the train until they were on the crossing...in fact, no one knew anything was wrong at all until the bus suddenly jerked forward as Percy Line punched it, trying desperately to move the bus out of the way, and that's when the locomotive headlight lit the interior of the bus up like noontime. By then there was almost no time to react, and all they could do was shout or scream.

Those sudden, horrified screams are probably what dragged a couple of the sleepers into that state of semi-consciousness you end up in when something wakes you up, but they were still trying to figure out just exactly what woke them up when 5550's pilot ripped into the back half of the bus with a cataclysmic 'CRWUMP!!!, spinning it clockwise sharply even as the pilot and front coupler tore into the right sidewall, locking the bus to the front of the locomotive for just an instant, then tearing through the right side and floor from about the third window back like the proverbial knife through hot butter, ripping through the bus body diagonally, folding almost the entire right side and rear end of the body into an accordioned, mangled mess of metal as it tore it from the frame and wrapped it around the front of the locomotive.

As the pilot tore through the body it ripped every seat from about the third or forth row back loose, along with the kids sitting in those seats...no one in the rear half of the bus had a chance. The mangled rear end of the bus all but exploded as it wrapped around the front of the locomotive, dropping two of the kids onto the pilot, possibly knocking one into the front half of the bus, and tossing the others clear, scattering them along several hundred yards of right-of-way, a couple of them as far as sixty feet from the tracks. The mangled ball of metal rode the pilot for a shade over two hundred yards before finally tearing clear and tumbling, like a crushed beer can being kicked by a jogger. There were fourteen kids in the rear half of the bus, and as the rear half was first dragged, then tumbled all were ejected.  Most died instantly, but five would die later at or on the way to the hospital. None survived until morning.

The front half of the wrecked bus, still sitting next to the tracks several hours after the crash as investigators and a couple of Rockville firefighters examine it. The bus spun to the right as it was hit, allowing the train to tear diagonally through the body,  leaving almost the entire left side wall of the bus grotesquely intact as it gouged out the interior and ripped away most of the right side and the entire back end of the bus. If you look at the roof of the bus, you can just about follow how the bus turned as the train tore it in two

Every seat from the third window back was violently ripped from the bus, along with the kids in those seats, as the locomotive's pilot tore through the ride. The kids in the front of the bus went for a wild ride, and most were ejected, but miraculously, most suffered only minor to moderate injuries. The fourteen kids in the rear half of the bus, however, didn't stand a chance. Photo from 'The Rockville Tragedy' by and used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson
Another pic of the interior of the bus after the crash. Only two seats remained intact behind the driver, on the left side of the bus...every seat on the right side was either ripped from it's mount by the force of the impact or torn completely away along with the rear portion. Margaret Kreps was probably lying on that tiny bit of intact aisle between the seats at the front portion of the bus when Bill Gower pulled himself inside and carried her out. Phoebe Kelley was likely lying either across the left wheel housing or between it and the seats when Albert Leaf and Dwight Fearnow saw and removed her.

 Note the drivers seat and dash being left intact. The lights were still on after the collision.  Photo originally from 'the William Witbeck Collection, used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson
A shot looking straight up where the center aisle used to be. This picture reveals a common construction feature of vehicles from that era...the bus floor was actually wood, covered with the exact same type of rubber matting used to this day in school buses.

Note how the sidewall and window next to the driver angles inward towards the cowl of the bus...the door would have been set at a similar angle on the right side of the bus. This, coupled with the door windows, which were smaller than the door windows on modern school buses, could have obscured Percy Line's vision to the right. This is also the reason that laws were enacted requiring school bus drivers to open the door at a crossing. Photo used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson


A shot of the bus after it had been towed from the scene. Again, if you look at the diagonal break where the roof's torn away you can picture how the bus spun clockwise as the locomotive ripped through it. From the third right side window forward, you still have a school bus...from there back, total destruction.  It's a little easier to see how the kids in the front of the bus managed to survive with mostly minor injuries here, though that very fact is still a miracle. They managed to stay towards the front of the bus during that critical fraction of a second that it took the locomotive to smash through the rear end of the bus, then were thrown clear as the bus bounced away from the tracks and slammed into the embankment. This extra second or so inside the bus kept them from being thrown beneath the train (Though Wilma Newey had a close call in that respect), and their own collisions with the ground, once they were tossed clear, were relatively gentle. Photo from 'The Rockville Tragedy' by and used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson
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The kids in the front half of the bus went for a wild ride as the chassis, along with the front half and entire left side of the body spun around 90 degrees and slammed hard against the embankment next to the tracks. Louise Funk was bounced out of her seat and upward,striking her head on the ceiling of the bus before landing, momentarily stunned, on top of Percy Line, who was wedged behind the steering wheel. Most of the kids in the front half of the bus were ejected, too, but with almost the entire right side missing and the bus spinning clockwise, they were tossed through the gaping chasm where the right side of the body had been and away from the bus, landing between the bus and the tracks. 

Blanche Litton was sitting in the last intact seat on the right side of the bus, and heard that cataclysmic crash up close and personal as she was yanked bodily out of the bus, felt her coat rip and tear, and was deposited hard on the side of the tracks, rolling and tumbling, ending up with bruises, abrasions, and a couple of lacerations...her coat snagged on a window frame or side panel as the right side of the body ripped away, dragged her out of the gaping maw where the body tore in two, then was torn off of her, depositing her on the ground.

 Jane Staley was tossed from her seat, across the bus, and onto the ground, landing hard on her arm. She ended up with one of the worst injuries among the survivors...a badly broken arm. Wilma Newey...also sitting near the middle of the bus, therefore near the rip where the body tore in two...was also tossed clear as the bus spun, rolling as she landed and ending up only feet from the rails. She lay there wide-eyed with terror as the train's wheels, sliding, screaming, and throwing sparks, slid past only a couple of feet from her face.

 Duward Hose was sitting just ahead of his best friend and lab partner, Jim Flurie...they had been talking when the bus suddenly surged forward and both had turned their heads to see the on-rushing headlight right on top of them...then the crash, and Duward was tossed clear, landing on the ground between the track and the embankment. Jim was sitting in what became the first row in the rear half and was also ejected...I believe his was one of the bodies found on the front platform of the locomotive.

 At least two of the kids...Phoebe Kelley and Margaret Kreps...stayed with the truncated bus as it spun and slammed into the embankment, though I think Phoebe may have actually been thrown from the back half of the bus forward, into the front half.. .... Phoebe was unconscious, and Margaret, who was tossed from her seat,then bounced off of the little bit of right sidewall that was left, was lying on the small area of floor left intact near the front, also unconscious and suffering a possible head injury as well as a couple of nasty lacerations in the process.

Bill Gower was thrown onto the low embankment...he remembers rolling down it...and ended up near the front end of the bus when he was tossed clear. and to this day he's not sure just how he got there. The bus' headlights were still on, and the door had been knocked open as the bus slammed into the embankment. He stared at the gaping wound that had been the right side of the bus, realizing about the same time that not only was half of the bus missing, half of his friends were also missing.  He started walking up the tracks and hadn't gone far before he nearly tripped over first body. He then returned to the bus and, while history has lost what he said to his friends, I have a feeling it was something to the effect of 'Oh, God , guys, it's bad...really, really bad

Albert Leaf and Dwight Fearnow had also been thrown clear, and found themselves between the track and the embankment, maybe twenty feet from the bus.  They pulled themselves to their feet, wondering just what had happened for a second as they looked at the jagged gash that had been the right side of the bus. They then walked towards the vehicle, looking inside as rain pattered against the ground and the bus' metal roof.  They saw Phoebe Kelley lying inside, tangled in the wreckage, and pulled themselves across the shattered right frame rail to get to her. One of them may have seen Margaret Kreps lying in the tiny bit of intact aisle near the front of the bus, but Bill Gower was pulling himself through the open front door...he probably even said something to the effect of 'You guys take care of Phoebe, I've got Margaret...'

 Dwight and Albert reached down and lifted Phoebe, gently carrying her back across the bent frame rail and out...I can hear the conversation as they gently carried her out of the hole in the side of the bus, stepping across the twisted frame rails, cautioning each other to be careful as they did so. As they lowered her to the ground, Albert checked for a pulse, and found one...Phoebe was alive. 

Bill Gower reached Margaret at about he same time Albert and Dwight pulled themselves inside the bus to get Phoebe out. He reached down, and gently picked Margaret up, probably carrying her 'Bride Over The Threshold style' back out of the open door. He looked around and saw an overcoat someone had laid on the ground, and lowered her gently to it. Margaret stirred as he lowered her ...she had some nasty lacerations, and a possible head injury, but the fact that she was moving, which was a good sign. While Margaret would survive her injuries, Phoebe, sadly, would die enroute to Georgetown Hospital. One of the night's miracles was the fact that  with the exception of Phoebe Kelley, none of the kids in the front of the bus were seriously injured, especially considering the the ferocity of the crash. Jane Staley's broken arm and Margaret Kreps lacerations were the worst injuries among the survivors, from what I could find out.

The kids who were tossed clear pulled them selves off of the ground, checked themselves for injuries, and trotted towards the mangled front half of the bus even as Dwight and Albert gently carried Phoebe through the huge hole where the body had ripped in two and Bill eased Margaret through the open door. Jane Staley probably looked around and spotted Wilma, very likely went to hug her, then recoiled as her broken arm suddenly lit up with pain. Louise Funk and Percy Line followed Bill out of the open door and, Louise immediately starting to count heads  It was horribly evident that about half of their number were among the missing. Thirteen of the twenty seven kids who had been aboard the bus were nowhere to be found.  

Louise Funk started going from kid to kid, seeing who was there, and how badly they were injured as the kids started checking themselves and each other for injuries, and, still reeling with shock and pain and oblivious to the rain, looked around and took their own roll-call to see who was missing. Names were called hopefully and, in the case of the girls, tearfully as they began to realize that friendships that had been forged back in elementary school and before had just been violently torn apart. In the background, air hissed out of one of the bus tires, and the engine was ticking as it cooled and then, suddenly, Rockville VFD's house siren wound up, wailing into the rainy night, and a couple of the kids probably thought '...That must be for us'

*

Reverend Charles O'Hara lived hard by the tracks and was used to hearing both the crossing bell and trains roaring past, so he didn't give it as second thought when he heard 5550's whistle screeching out the crossing signal, then the bells. A local priest, Father Cecil O'Neil, was visiting him, and the two had sat up late, talking, before heading for their rooms and crashing for the night. Rev. O'Hara heard the train about twenty minutes after they hit the sack, and correctly IDed the train as the St Louis-Washington Flyer that rolled through every night about this time, and was always flat out getting' it when it did so.

Then he suddenly heard the scream of sliding steel wheels and an evil sounding 'CA-RWUNP!!!, and rolled out of bed, looking out of his window in time to see the last couple of cars slide past, a single man (Actually one of the male students, more than likely) standing next to the tracks...and then he saw the mangled front half of the bus...

He yelled to Father O'Neil that the Flyer, as the train was known, had just hit a bus as he dragged his clothes back on, and the two of them bailed out of the house (Possibly after calling it in) and ran to the scene, becoming the first two responders of any kind to reach the wrecked bus. Rockville's fire siren wound up even as they reached the front end of the bus and started helping the kids who survived, and minutes later they heard the welcome wail of sirens, and saw the equally welcome sight of winking red lights gettin' it up Baltimore Road...

*

Back in 1935 Rockville's fire chief was a guy named W. Valentine Wilson...Val to his many friends... and in those long ago days before central dispatching in rural areas and, indeed, before radios, calls to RVFD went directly to Chief Wilson's home. His wife, along with her other duties as a house wife and mom, was the department's dispatcher and the button that set off the department's house siren...located on the courthouse clock tower until 1966... was prominently mounted on the wall next to the phone. While on this tragic and rainy night a truck driver who rolled up on the crash drove to the centrally located button that allowed citizens to set off the siren and finger-stabbed the house siren to life, it's s good bet that a phone call or two also went to Chief Wilson's house. 

Chief Wilson first heard the siren start to wind up and headed for the front door, even as the phone rang and his wife, an experienced dispatcher by then, grabbed it, pencil and pad probably at hand. The chief stopped for a second, knowing that the phone call was likely connected to the wailing house siren. He saw his wife's face go white...she probably turned to him and said something like 'The Flyer hit a school bus at Baltimore Road'...

Val Wilson was said to have been a very progressive chief...a bit ahead of his time, in fact...and he well understood the concept of 'Get help, on the way first and fast...it's better to not need them and send them home, than need them and not have them on the way'. I have a feeling that Chief Wilson, knowing that they'd be behind the eight-ball both equipment and manpower-wise if it was anything to the call, told her 'Start calling in help' as he headed out of the door. 

Rockville and environs there-of were in far better shape, fire protection-wise than the great majority of rural towns in the mid Thirties. By 1935, Rockville had far more than the hand or car-drawn hose reals and single 1921 Waterous engine they'd started out with...the department was actually pretty well equipped for it's era, and their apparatus even included a heavy rescue truck. Within minutes of the first howl of the house siren, the rigs were pulling out of the house and heading for Baltimore Road with full crews aboard. .

The area had another fire-service advantage over many...even most...rural areas of the country. Being right outside of Washington DC, the Rockville area was, for that era, pretty well populated (Though, again, uber-rural by today's standards) and by 1935 several Montgomery County towns already had fire companies, all of them pretty well equipped. By the time Rockville's first-out rig hit the street with a full crew, fire sirens were howling in both Kensington and Bethesda...both about a ten mile run from Rockville...and their rigs were also pulling out and heading for Rockville with full crews, their own sirens beginning to yowl. Ambulances also started heading that way...not only had Chief Wilson organized Rockville's fire company, several years later he also organized Rockville's volunteer rescue squad.

This beautifully restored '34 Mack pumper was probably Rockville's first out rig back in 1935...it was all but brand new when it responded to the bus crash.


Relatively few fire departments, and very few small town volunteer departments, owned rescue rigs in the Thirties, but Rockville not only ran a rescue rig, it was a very well equipped rig for it's day at that. Note the two big flood lights just behind the cab...they, as well as the rig's on board generator (Another very rare item in the Thirties) likely got a workout the night of the crash.

The rig's a '31 Mack (For decades Rockville. MD was an all Mack department) and was in service until it was replaced...by another Mack...in 1955. This pic, BTW, was taken much closer to '55 than it was '35. Take a close look just forward of the life preserver, directly behind the cab. Yep...that is indeed a two way radio whip antenna. (It's much easier to see in the left side 3/4 view)


When RVFD's rigs arrived on scene, the train crew probably met up with Chief Wilson, telling him of the two bodies on the locomotive's front platform, at the same time telling him what he already suspected despite the miracle he was hoping for...they had multiple fatalities. He probably split his crew...sending the crews of the Rescue truck, and the Rescue Squad's ambulance to check on the occupants of the front half of the bus, having other Rescue Truck qualified firefighters get the rig's on-board generator going to get them some light, sending another crew with a charged hose line to make sure that the mangled remains of the bus didn't light off on them, then grabbing a couple of hand lights or lanterns and, along with the two clergymen and several other firefighters, walking the tracks. When the rigs from Kensington and Bethesda rolled in, he probably assigned their crews to assist in removing the victims.

As they searched, they hoped they were looking for injured, or if there were truly such things as miracles, stunned, scared, but uninjured, kids, but knew they would find bodies. They didn't have to walk far before they found the first one. Eleven of the fourteen mortally injured kids and bodies were scattered for about 200 yards along the tracks, where they had been thrown...some as far as fifty or sixty feet... as the rear half of the bus body tumbled and rolled. The other two, of course, were on the locomotive. One...Phoebe Kelley...was with the front half of the bus.

Father O'Neil gave last rites to each as he reached them...some of the bodies were horribly mangled, one was decapitated, and amputated limbs were scattered about as well. It was, by all accounts, a horrible and macabre scene to work, one that dug itself into the minds of every firefighter, police officer, and first responder of any kind that rolled on it. As Father Kelley gave each Last Rites, a recovery team covered and removed each respectfully, and took them to an ambulance or hearse to be transported to Pumphrey Funeral Home, on Montgomery Avenue in Rockville, which had been set up as a temporary morgue.

 Five of the kids in the rear half of the bus were alive...barely...immediately after the crash, but advanced prehospital care was still three and a half decades in the future, and 1930s prehospital care was limited to splinting fractures, bandaging wounds, and a heavy foot coupled with a big (For that era) engine providing fast transport to the hospital. All of them were unconscious but breathing, and four of them were placed in cars and transported to to a hospital in Georgetown, another to Sandy Spring Hospital. Sadly all would die either enroute or immediately after arriving at the hospital.


Phoebe Kelley was alive when Albert leaf and Dwight Fearnow carried her from the shattered front section of the bus, she died enroute to Georgetown hospital. Jane Staley and sixteen year old Margaret Kreps were also transported to the same Georgetown hospital with fractures, lacerations, and a possible head injury, and were listed as being in serious condition...but they would survive, and were probably discharged from the hospital within a couple of days. The two girls shared a hospital room, and weren't told  just how bad the accident had been until they were released, though I have a feeling that Jane may have suspected simply because she never lost consciousness.

After doing as much for her students as she could, and making sure that they were being cared for, Louise Funk made the most horrific phone call she'd ever have to make...one that she knew was about to irrevocably shatter lives. She found a phone and called Williamsport's Dr Ira Zimmerman...the town's primary physician, who had brought most, if not all of the kids on the bus into the world. When the phone rang in Dr. Zimmerman home, he was waiting up for  his daughter, Margaret Eva, to return from the trip. Richard G. Hawken...Williamsport's mayor and a good friend of the Zimmermans...just happened to be visiting and it was obvious to him that something bad had happened seconds into the conversation. Dr Zimmerman hung up and looked at the mayor, his face white as a sheet. He told him what had happened, then grabbed his medical bag, a rain coat, and car keys. Minutes after he hung up the phone, he was heading for Rockville. 

Hawken started making rounds, going to the homes of the famlies who had children on the ill-fated bus, and making the notifications...a task that he said later was the saddest job he ever had to do, He probably headed for the high school, in case any parents were already waiting there for the bus, then joined the citizens who were gathering at Louise Harsh's home...also the Williamsport telephone exchange..to await news. Louise Harsh, who was the first to learn the horrible news when Louise Funk called and asked to be connected to Dr Zimmerman's house, kept a line open so Dr Zimmerman could get through instantly with any news.

I have a feeling that Dr Zimmerman made it to Rockville in far less time that it took the bus, and that had to have a long, long ride, a million thoughts colliding in his head as the wipers beat back and forth, no matter how much time the trip actually took. He rolled onto a scene crawling with firefighters, police officers, and townspeople, all doing what they could to help. The kids in the front half of the bus had  all been taken the nearby home of William Bouic, which had been set up as a first aid station and comfort station for the kids with minor injuries (And was probably also a quasi-command-post for the operation). .

 Both Louise Funk and a couple of police officers met Dr. Zimmerman when he got to the scene...the train was still there as was the wrecked bus. One of the first things he found out, with sense of impending dread, was that Margaret Eva was not among the kids at the Bouic home. The injured, he was told, had been transported to the hospital and nine bodies had been taken to Pumphrey Funeral Home.  

That sense of dread expanding like a malignant balloon, Dr Zimmerman drove to the funeral home to see if his daughter was there, hoping against hope that she wasn't. Along with Mrs Reuben Pumphrey...the undertaker's wife...he walked into the basement room that had been converted to a temporary morgue. The very first body he came to was Margaret Eva's...with his eyes filling with tears, he identified her. After a moment of silence, Mrs Pumphrey gently asked him if he could identify the rest of the bodies, as most had not yet been identified. He drew a long, tearful sigh, then told her that  he had brought all of them into the world, so he had known all of them since they were infants, he could identify them. Then he set out on one of the saddest tasks he'd ever be asked to do.

The Mayor got word to all of the parents with-in thirty minutes, and several of the parents headed for Rockville while others gathered at the Harsh home/telephone exchange to await news. Information trickled back to Williamsport via phone, and a list of the kids who may have survived was made up...but sadly, when the list was received back at Williamsport, it was believed to be a list of those who had been killed. This bit of confusion...and false hope...wouldn't be cleared up until the survivors returned home hours after the crash. 

Several of the dads decided not to wait for information to make it's way to Williamsport, and headed for Rockville...as it had been with Dr Zimmerman, that trip to Rockville...which probably took around an hour and change in a car, even with the bad weather...had to seem endless to the parents who headed for the scene. Though it wasn't stated, I have a feeling several parents went in one or two cars, and the silent speculation, interspersed with questions that couldn't be answered until they got to Rockville, had to have been maddening. When they arrived they found a far less hectic scene than the good doctor had found...the train had continued it's journey, and investigators from the State Police were examining the shattered remains of the bus, awaiting the arrival of ICC investigators ( Who, with the scene being that close to D.C. may have, in fact, already been there.)

The parents searched first for Dr Zimmerman, then a police officer or anyone who could tell them what was going on...again , a search that, while it took only minutes, probably was both frustrating and endless. They were directed to the Bouic home where all of the surviving students, with the exception of Jane Staley and Margaret Kreps, had been taken . The group of fathers looked at the kids with growing sadness...none of their own kids were among the group of survivors.

The parents set out on that horrible search that occurs in mass-casualty-incidents to this day. The funeral home was the closest and was the first stop. For that group of six dads, this would be the only stop they needed...all found their child in the funeral home.

Meanwhile, a Montgomery County school bus and driver was procured, the kids climbed aboard, and the surviving kids finally started their journey home, arriving back at Williamsport High School four and a half hours after the accident...a shade after 4AM, after what had to have been the longest, saddest bus ride any of them would ever take.

The funeral home in Williamsport would have to borrow hearses to transport the bodies of the deceased back home, and the funerals would go on for six days, about two and on at least one day, three a day., making for a long, sad, dismal week in April, a week that's still known as Williamsport's darkest hour.

Meanwhile, speculation and finger-pointing...both official and unofficial...started almost before the bus with the surviving kids aboard arrived back in Williamsport. Investigators knew the basic, broad cause of the crash...Percy Line had driven the bus in front of a train.. What they wanted to know was why???'

The investigators knew the crossing bells were working properly...they had been checked by the first right-of-way engineer to reach the scene, less than an hour after the accident occurred. While there's an over-ride switch that could be used to cut out the bells when a train was 'shifting' (Switching cars onto the siding), the box it was located in, in the watchman's shack, was locked, and when unlocked and checked, it was found to be in the proper position. On top of that, the bells were confirmed to be working properly several hours later. When the first east bound train to be allowed through after the crash passed, the bells began their attention-grabbing 'Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding' just as they should have.

The red lanterns that had been placed in the boxes by the watchman when he went off duty were in place as they should have been, and were visible for at least a couple of hundred feet if not more. And the button reflectors on the warning signs...which should have let Percy know he was approaching a crossing almost a hundred yards before he reached it...were visible, for a couple of hundred yards when headlights hit them. So there was no way, they speculated, that Percy line...despite his claims to the contrary... didn't know he was on a crossing. And, BTW, this was apparently the story he was sticking to...that he had no idea he was on a railroad crossing until he saw the train's headlight. He also stated that he 'Saw a red light (The lantern) but didn't realize that it indicated that he was right on top of the crossing...he thought it indicated an open ditch'. When asked how he missed the button reflector warning sign...which several of the kids and Louise Funk did see...he stated that he had been trying to figure that out since the accident.

He said that his head was moving constantly from side to side, and he was looking to the right as he passed the red light, and heard the bells at that point...this was also apparently when he saw the train and punched it.

State Police and ICC investigators contacted all of the surviving kids, and those who had been awake stated that they could see the cross-buck signs and the lantern, and on top of that, the crossing was well lit with street lights. This wasn't a dark, unprotected crossing on a back road, keep in mind, but was, rather, a signal protected crossing hard by the railroad station in the middle of a small but thriving community. The same kids did state, however, that they didn't hear the crossing bells or hear the whistle, but then again, it wasn't their job to listen for them.

Photo of the crossing and crossbuck taken very shortly after the accident, showing how well lighted the crossing and immediate area were. Also note that the red lantern, placed in the box on the crossbuck sign by the watchman when he went off duty, is still in place in this shot. This is looking towards the east...the bus would have been coming towards the camera. Photo used courtesy of Debi Carbaugh Robinson
Louise Funk told investigators that she saw the headlight of the locomotive as it disappeared behind the west-bound passenger shelter. but didn't realize what it was until it reappeared after it cleared the shelter, and that's when Percy Line...by then crossing the track that the train was on...also saw the fast approaching headlight and punched it. And of course, by then, it was too late.

Ahh, time for Rob to speculate again...First, let me say that there's a reason that there are now limits to how long drivers of commercial vehicles...be they buses or trucks...can be on duty. Percy had gotten up early that morning, driven his normal route, then gone to his regular job, then driven the afternoon bus route before driving the kids to Rockville. Meaning that, when he should have been heading home to a nice quiet evening he was instead departing Williamsport for a 2 ½ hour (One way) road trip that would get him back home well after midnight. 

It had been years since Percy drove this route for any reason, so he wasn't completely familiar with it. It was dark and rainy, not a good combination when you are familiar with the road, potential pure hell when you're not. There was little or no traffic on the road until they approached the crossing, when he met Steven' roadster as it crossed the tracks. While both Line and Louise Funk said the lights didn't blind him, I'm going to say that that's all but impossible. While the lights may not have completely blinded him, it's all but impossible at night to not have your night-vision compromised by the lights of an oncoming car, if only for a few seconds. The bus wasn't but about 60 feet from the crossing when it passed Stevens' car, which means that Percy was either staring into the roadsters headlights for several seconds, or pulling that trick we all learn early in our driving career...looking to the side slightly so he wasn't staring dead into the lights....until he was only a couple of bus lengths from the crossing, and this could well be the reason that he didn't immediately recognize the cross buck sign...It doesn't, however, explain why he didn't recognize the bells.

Percy told the investigators that he heard bells about the same time he saw the train's headlight, and assumed that they were the engine's bells...but investigators determined that the bells he heard were almost definitely the crossing warning bells, which were hard by the road, between the crossbuck sign and the tracks.. Think about it...by the time Percy saw the headlight...seconds before the bus was hit...the train was probably already sliding, Engineer Shewbridge was laying down on the whistle (Which, of course, Percy also stated that he didn't hear until the last minute), and steam locomotives are not quiet pieces of machinery. If you factor all of that in and realize how much noise the locomotive was making, you realize that there's no way he heard the engine's bell as the train approached. (Try something...next time you're sitting at a crossing, listen for the bell on the locomotive and see when you hear it. While you're at it, keep in mind that diesel locomotives are way quieter in operation than steam locomotives.) So it's a near sure bet that he actually did hear the crossing bells, whether he knew it...or wanted to admit it...or not.

Now, the windows in the doors of the school bus were small, and the door obscured Percy's view of the tracks somewhat...but this appears to have been a moot point if you believe his story, because, again, according to him he didn't even know he was on a crossing until he saw the train's headlight. That being his story, I won't mention the fact that if he had stopped before he crossed the tracks and opened the door he'd have had a clear view all the way to the railroad station...Oh...I just did.

What do I think happened? The combination of the droning bus engine, wipers, darkness, and the fact that he was already beyond tired lulled him into that sort of semi-hypnotic state that all of us have experienced, and even driven while under the influence of. Most of us didn't drive a bus while that tired, though, and none of us drove a bus full of kids in front of an oncoming train because of it.

Had this been today, Percy wouldn't have been allowed to make the trip...as he was working for a company that contracted it's buses out, he would be considered a commercial driver and a driver for hire, and there would have been a limit to the number of hours he could be on on duty, and a minimum number of hours he had to spend off duty and resting.

But it wasn't today...it was 80 years ago, when the concept of over the road commercial drivers was still pretty new, and when laws governing them were still very much in the developmental stages, if they had even been considered at all.

So, as he approached the crossing, with the headlights from another car partially blinding him, he was very likely sort of zoned out from sheer exhaustion. And he may, indeed, not have realized where he was until too late because of that very fact.

Louise Funk did an awesome job after the accident happened, keeping her composure as best she could, helping the kids who survived, and notifying Dr Zimmerman of the accident....and, while she shares a very tiny bit of the blame here, too., you can well understand why she did what she did. She knew they were approaching the crossing, but she made the mistake of assuming that Percy Line knew he was approaching it as well...a very understandable assumption. But still, had she reminded him of it, as she did with every other hazard, 27 real tired kids would have trouped off of the bus in Williamsport at around 1AM, and I wouldn't be writing this.

As I read the ICC Report narrative on the accident, the thought occurred to me that, had I been sitting behind him, I would have been saying something to the effect of 'Percy...Railroad crossing. Railroad Crossing! Dammit, Percy, stop the ##@! bus, railroad crossing!! Probably smacking him on the shoulder to get his attention by the time it got to the 'Dammit, Percy...' stage.  But I wasn't there.  Louise Funk married, and lived a full and productive life, passing away in 2005...seventy years after the accident... at the age of 98. I have a feeling that, in the back of her mind, she wished she'd done just that throughout the seventy years that passed between the accident and her death.

After the accident she was allowed to go home and rest...she was, understandably, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with nerves that were probably humming like just-plucked guitar strings. Her error was actually a small one, and an understandable one at that...it wasn't her responsibility to see that the bus stopped at railroad crossings, and Percy was known to be a very competent driver. Actually, IMHO, she should have gotten far more recognition for her actions in the immediate aftermath of the accident than she did.

As for Percy, once the Maryland State Police questioned him the first time at the scene, he made himself scarce, and wasn't found until the next day, when he was promptly arrested and charged with Manslaughter. A contingent of parents from Williamsport came to Rockville that very day to bail him out, and a grand jury refused to indite him, citing the weather and the fact that the crossing was known to be one of the more dangerous crossings in MD. And for his part, I have a feeling that having the deaths of 14 young people on his conscience for the rest of his life was a far worse punishment than anything the State of Maryland could have given him...but I can't completely let him off the hook here.

Yes the weather was nasty...I myself despise having to drive in such weather, especially as I get older because of the way it compromises visibility...and yes it was a dangerous crossing, with screwed up sight-lines for drivers if a train was approaching from the west because of the railroad station and passenger shelter, but if Percy had stopped the bus at the crossing and opened the door to watch and listen for an approaching train, it wouldn't have gotten hit. Period. I still have trouble getting my mind around the fact that laws had to be enacted to get school bus drivers to stop and check for oncoming trains at grade crossings...something that should be common sense.

This accident grabbed national headlines instantly, and was front page news in just about every major newspaper in the land the next day. This type of accident has the ability...to this very day...to give parents of school age kids the sweaty-horrors. Parents all across the U.S. Were thinking 'My kids ride a school bus...and it has to cross the tracks...'

You'd think that this one would have caused some laws to be at the very least, considered, but that wasn't the case. It did however, grab the immediate attention of a gentleman named Franklin Delano Roosevelt...the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in Washington, D.C. at the time. FDR, like the rest of the nation, was horrified at the accident, and the concept of school buses (And other traffic) having to deal with unguarded, unprotected grade crossings. He pledged 200 Million dollars to replace grade crossings with overpasses, thereby eliminating grade crossings altogether.

Of course it was impossible to replace every grade crossing in the US...but one crossing got eliminated almost immediately...the Baltimore Road B&O crossing. The watchman's hours at the Baltimore Rd crossing were increased to 24-7 as an interim measure, then right-of-way was purchased, and Veirs Mill Road was extended across the B&O tracks and out to Baltimore Pike...and When I say 'across the B&O tracks' I mean just that...included in the extension was a bridge over the tracks.

The Baltimore Road crossing was closed immediately after the bridge opened (And when I say immediately, I'm betting it was 'at the same time') and that's the set-up to this day, with Veirs Mill Road crossing the tracks on a now multi-laned bridge, and Baltimore Road dead-ending at the tracks.

***********************************************************************************
The 14 students who died in the crash

MARGARET EVA ZIMMERMAN.
PAUL McELROY.
CARL BRINDLE.
NORRIS DOWNS, JR.
PEARL EMERSON.
VIRGINIA MYERS.
LEROY KENDALL.
CLAUDE MYERS.
BERTHA CASTLE.
ELVA HARSH.
MARY LOUISE DOWNS.
PHOEBE KELLEY.
LOIS WINTERS.
JAMES FLURIE.

************************************************************************************* 


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



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


March 1972

October 1971

August 1976


http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2015/02/conasauga-tennesee-bustrain-crash.html  Conasauga Tenn.  March 2000

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/sandy-utah-bus-train-crashthe-worst.html   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/proberta-california-train-bus-crash.html  Proberta, California Nov 1921

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/02/shreve-ohio-and-berea-ohio-school.html  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/crescent-city-florida-trainschool-bus.html  Crescent City, Florida December 1933

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/rockville-md-train-bus-crash-april-11th.html  Rockville, Maryland April 1935

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/mason-city-iowa-bus-train-crash.html  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937

http://disasteroushistory.blogspot.com/2016/03/eads-tennessee-trainschool-bus-crash.html Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941



<***>

I got lucky on this one...I found both the ICC report and a couple of in-depth articles...both from newspapers of the era, and...as well as s a Facebook page that included a slew of pictures of the bus and the crossing, always a help in understanding what happened...

...and speaking of that Facebook page, and the photos, some huge thanks and serious props are in order.  

I'd like to thank Deba Carbaugh Robinson for allowing me to use her pictures in this post. They helped make explaining just what happened that night a whole lot easier, and added to the post exponentially

On to the Notes...



 <***>

Those pics that Debi Carbrough Robinson let me use? Most of them are also in 'The Rockville Tragedy', the excellent book she wrote about the accident.  I ordered and read the book, and it's far more informative than my small post is. Also, while all of my posts deal more with the nuts and bolts of what happened in the various incidents I post about, her book goes into great, and touching detail about the kids on that bus, and how the crash affected the small town of Williamsport.

She's a native of the area, and now lives in Williamsport, and her grandmother knew several of the kids who were on the bus, so this story touched close to home for her.  

If you'd like to grab a copy of her book...and you should, it's an awesome read...it's available on Amazon .

 <***>

Two years after the tragedy, a library was built on Potomac Street in Williamsport (Also Md. Rt 11 and the maid drag through town) and named Memorial Library in memory of the 14 students killed in the accident. A pair of plaques inside the front door list the names of the 14 kids as well as the story of the crash. The library's still there today and serves as one of the few physical reminders of the crash.

It's a small but imposing single story brick building with a columned white portico, and is located at 104 Potomac Street in Williamsport if you're ever n that area and wan to stop and pay respects to the 14 students.


Memorial Library, in Williamsport Md

<***>

Six of the students who died in the crash were Seniors...Williamsport's small Graduating Class of 1935 was reduced from 33 students to 27 students in one tragic instant.

Also, WIlliamsport lost more citizens in the bus accident than were killed in WWI. Only five Williamsport residents who fought in Europe in WWI died in the conflict...Nine fewer than the number who died in the bus crash.
<***>

While that long, dreary week of funerals was rough on the entire town of Williamsport, it was particularly hard on the Leaf family. Not only did Albert Leaf first survive the accident, then help remove a close friend (Phoebe Kelley) who later died, from the wrecked bus, his dad owned the
 funeral home in Williamsport that handled all fourteen of the funerals. This being a family run business, young Albert probably assisted in preparations for these funerals. It also meant that his family very likely knew all of the kids who were killed and their families, and had very possibly hosted them in their home for those small town neighborly social events that are an integral part of the life of all small towns.

Also, back in that era the great majority of small town funeral homes were just that...funeral homes as in the undertaker and his family lived in the building, usually upstairs while the business was conducted downstairs. If they didn't live in the building, they likely lived in a house next door or behind the building. This would have very likely made it all but impossible for any of them to slip away and try to decompress for a few minutes, and would have surrounded Albert with reminders of what happened for that entire week, even more so than the rest of the surviving kids.



<***>


If you've read this series of posts in the actual sequence they were posted in, this one might sound a bit familiar, and there's a good reason for that. In many ways the Rockville crash was a near-clone of the Shreve, Ohio bus/train crash five years and change earlier, in January 1930.

Both accidents happened at night, while on the way home after an extracurricular activity. Both occurred during inclement weather. The crossings in both accidents were within the limits of a small town and protected by automatic bell signals, but no flashing light. Both crossings were protected as well by a watchman who had gone off duty at 10PM...a half hour before the Shreve crash, an hour and  a half before the Rockville crash. The train hit the rear portion of the bus in both crashes, killing everyone sitting in the back of the bus, and leaving many of those sitting in the front of the bus relatively uninjured.

 The injuries in the Shreve bus crash were worse than those in the Rockville crash, probably due to the age of the bus and the type of seating. The bus in the Shreve crash had perimeter seating, while the Rockville bus had the modern seating arrangement we're used to.



<***>


Fatigue is a factor in commercial vehicle crashes to this day, despite the laws governing hours on duty and rest periods. While these laws have been in place for decades, like all laws, they aren't always followed, and there have been several major bus crashes with-in the last few years involving buses...all owned by budget, 'Fly-By-Night' type outfits. While none have involved trains, all have involved driver fatigue, among other safety problems.

One in particular comes to mind because it happened only forty or so miles north of where I'm typing this, in Bowling Green, Va, on May 11th, 2011, when a Sky Express bus with 55 people aboard went off of the side of I-95 northbound, hit an embankment and rolled several times.

Everyone aboard was injured and four were killed. The driver, as it turned out, had been awake for pushing 24 hours with little or no sleep and had fallen asleep behind the wheel. He was arrested and charged with four counts of Manslaughter, and at trial was convicted and sentenced to forty years with thirty-four years suspended.


<***>

Percy Line, James Shewbridge, and William Busey were all three arrested and charged with Manslaughter, and Percy's arrest is understandable, but why would the engineer and fireman of the locomotive that hit them be arrested and charged? It's not like a train is maneuverable or easy to stop. Once a train gets up to speed, the brakes are there more to give the engineer the impression he was doing something to avoid an accident than to actually avoid it, because 99.99% of the time once a train's close enough to whatever is fouling the track for the engineer to see it, it's far too close for the brakes to get them stopped. The train crew can do nothing about this...they're just along for the ride at that point.  So just why were Shewbridge and Busey charged at all?

This was a common tactic back in that era (And actually, well into the middle of the twentieth century) and was just a technical charge that ensured that those charged would be available for any investigative hearings...in other words it was pretty much the same as a supoena.  Shewbridge's and Busey's charges were dropped without any other action. The Grand Jury declined to indite in Percy's case.


<***>


The Rockville crash became a major national news story, literally over night, and the entire nation was horrified by the crash, including President Franklin Roosevelt. Of course, unlike the very great majority of the other people reading the news paper articles about the accident as they drank their morning coffee, he could actually do something about it, in the form of taking action in an attempt to prevent any further grade crossing accidents.

Within a day he'd issued a presidential order, approved by congress, dedicating 200 million dollars (That'd be just shy of 3.5 Billion dollars today) to replacing grade crossings in the U.S. with highway overpasses.

Of course, there was no way that every crossing in the United States could be replaced. The logistics just didn't exist, even with millions of men out of work who'd love to have a construction job working on these new overpasses. There were just too many grade crossings, and some were on roads that saw fewer than ten vehicles a day...heck there were some in extremely rural areas of the country that probably barely saw twenty vehicles a week.

So the most dangerous crossings, with the most potential for a train-motor vehicle collision, had to be targeted. The Baltimore Road crossing in Rockville was among the first to go, of course, and dozens of other grade crossings were eliminated...including one that I'm aware of, less than two miles from where I'm typing this.

 US Route 1 follows almost the exact route through Chesterfield County, Va. today that it did when it was built in 1926, except for a stretch of road less than a mile long, beginning, if you're headed North, just south of Willis Road, and ending at the main gate of Defense Supply Center Richmond. This 'New' alignment was built in about 1935 or '36 and includes a bridge over what was then the Seaboard Airline Railroad (Now CSX).

The original alignment still exists, and most of it is known as Perrymont Road. A short stretch, maybe a quarter mile or so long, is part of Chester Road (Va. State Route 145) and stretches from the original Chester Road-Route 1...now Perrymont Road...intersection to a curve a few hundred feet east of Chester Road's 'new' intersection with the 'new' alignment of Route 1. From that curve north about another quarter mile or so, to where the 'new' align men veered away from the original alignment, the old US Rt 1 alignment was abandoned...but you can still see where parts of it were.

 When present day Perrymont Rd/Chester Rd was still US Route 1, it crossed the Seaboard tracks at a grade crossing, and if you know where to look you can actually see where the crossing was. If you stand at the curve where Chester Rd bends hard to the right to intersect with Route 1...now known as Jeff Davis Highway...and look northward up Route 1's old alignment, which now runs through the parking lot of a business, you can see the road bed of old Route 1 on the other side of the tracks, lined up just about perfectly with the section of the original alignment that you're standing on.You're looking at the long-removed Rt 1/Seaboard RR grade crossing. I'd be just about willing to bet the proverbial dinner at Applebees that this grade crossing was one of the ones that FDR's 200 million eliminated, resulting in the new bridge a few hundred feet to it's east.


<***>


Continuing with the subject of FDR's eliminated grade crossings and new overpasses...it was an awesome project and a worthy effort, and it doubtless saved an untold number of lives...but it was hit or miss. It had to be. As noted earlier, there was just absolutely no way to replace every grade crossing with an overpass.

I love it when I can use things right near home as examples...home being Chester, Virginia, about fifteen miles south of downtown Richmond. Let's look at the grade crossing on Old U.S.Route 1 that I discussed above, as well as a couple of others in the immediate area. 

Sure, the Route 1 grade crossing was eliminated, but several others nearby weren't. Back in the day, for example, Chester Road crossed the seaboard tracks at least twice and possibly three times between Route 1 and Chester...a distance of about five miles. One of these crossings was less than a half mile from both the new Route 1 bridge and the crossing it eliminated. None of these other crossings, however, were eliminated. 

In the late 30s or early '40s Chester Road was rerouted, straightened and widened somewhat, bypassing the crossing nearest Route 1, but not eliminating it...they just renamed the road. Originally, if you were headed towards Route 1 on Chester Road, you hung a brutally sharp left-hand curve after you crossed the tracks. This curve became a 'T' intersection when Chester Road was realigned, and old Chester Road, from the old Kingsland Rd/Chester Rd intersection to that new 'T' intersection, became the eastern end of Kingsland Road, crossing the Seaboard tracks where Chester Road had crossed it while it was at it.

The second crossing was just south of now long gone Kingsland Elementary School...now the site of present Chesterfield County Fire Station 17... and existed until 1966, when most of the former Seaboard tracks were torn up after the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line merged.

There was probably also a third crossing closer to Chester, which was eliminated completely when Chester Road was realigned in the late 30s or early 40s, and that one was replaced by a bridge...an already existing one. Part of that end of Chester Road was shifted to the right-of-way of an abandoned interurban line, which the Seaboard tracks had crossed on a bridge. The abutments of the bridge are there to this day, flanking Chester Road. And yes...Chester Road actually was that crooked back in the day!

 None of the three crossings were replaced with overpasses due to FDR's initiative, and all of them claimed a number of lives over the years.The Kingsland Road crossing, in fact, is still there, crossing a section of the old Seaboard tracks that became part of CSX. This crossing's now protected by modern gates and signals, but it still occasionally claims a victim who is stupid enough to try and run the gates.



I live just about a mile and a half or so from one of the bridges that was likely built because of FDR's push to eliminate grade crossings. This is about ten miles south of downtown Richmond,Va and is a satellite view of present day Chester Rd and US Rt 1 (Jefferson Davis Highway), showing the new and old alignments of Route 1 and Chester Rd, the former Route 1-SCL grade crossing, the bridge (Likely one of the ones built due to FDR's edict) that replaced it...and the near-by crossing that wasn't replaced. That crossing's still in place, and has regularly been the scene of train-car collisions to the tune of one every few years even though it's been equipped with lights and  gates for decades. From what I understand, it's record from the thirties through about the mid sixties...when it finally got signals...was even worse.

The blue dashes represent the old US-1 alignment, the red dashes represent Chester Road's original alignment. You can still see the old US-1 roadbed between the tracks and Route 1 (Also known as Jefferson Davis Highway in this part of the world.)


<***>

 ...And to continue with the subject of eliminating grade crossings...the Baltimore Road crossing had actually been slated for elimination a couple of years before the bus crash...the crossing was well known and often cited as one of the most dangerous crossings in Maryland. The state was awaiting funds, which didn't become available until FDR's federal program to eliminate grade crossings nationwide went into effect immediately after the accident.

<***>

One thing that I've mentioned several times and that can't be reiterated enough is the absolute lack of counseling provided to survivors of incidents of this nature in the past...a situation that existed right up until about thirty or so years ago. Not only was there absolutely no counseling...kids who survived major incidents such as this were expected to just 'suck it up' and get on with their lives.

The thing is, kids who survive fatal incidents involving family or friends are traumatized on several different levels, none of them healthy. They are afraid for themselves, wondering if they are going to die or (And this one's particularly traumatic for teens and tweens) be disfigured. They are afraid for their friends. They miss their friends who were killed, and (This one's sometimes over-looked even today) there's often a boat-load of Survivor's Guilt as they wonder why their brother, sister, or friend died and they survived. Worse, Survivor's guilt is sometimes made worse by the parents of children who died asking the surviving child why they lived, but their child died.

This is trauma that just does not go away. Oh it can be buried and not thought about, but it''s never forgotten, and many of the now senior citizens who, as children and teens, were involved in fatal incidents of all kinds will tell you that they still suffer from the mental trauma that was inflicted on them decades ago. Some go weeks and months without thinking about it...and then the memories will come crashing back down on them when they see, say, a school bus sitting at a railroad crossing. Others think about it daily.

The kids who weren't involved in the accident itself, but who lost friends were also traumatized, a fact that wasn't even given any thought until fairly recently. I can tell you for a fact that kids were expected to just 'deal with it' right on up to the Seventies...while, thankfully, nothing this tragic ever befell either Chester, Va or Southampton County, Va...my adopted and actual home towns...I had friends injured and killed in car accidents, and remember my dad telling me that it was 'None of my business'

Today, of course, counselors are provided for both the survivors, and the rest of the students in the school(s) involved in tragic incidents such as this...we can thank the hard-learned lessons taught by the kids from the 1910s right on through the 1970s for this.

<***>


A quick note about 12th grade...or actually, the lack of a 12th grade. I have a sneaking suspicion that several readers have picked up on the fact that none of the kids on the bus, six of whom were seniors, had reached the age of 18 yet, despite the fact that the accident happened in April...only a couple of months before graduation. There's a reason for this, of course. In 1935, there was no 12th grade, and kids were 17 (And occasionally 16, depending on where in the year their birthday fell) 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 as a freshman, sophomore, or junior (8th, 9th, and 10th grade before '41) suddenly found themselves with an extra year of high school. The 1939-40 11th grade class would have graduated as the class of '40, and would have been the last 11th grade class to graduate as seniors.

 This also meant that there wasn't a class of 1941, because the rising 11thgraders were now Juniors, therefore 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! 


 <***>LINKS<***>


I found some really good, interesting sites when I was researching Rockville...I sorted through them and posted the best of 'em here.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.829500660439655.1073742313.149116271811434&type=3
 First up, the Facebook album containing pictures from Debi Carbaugh Robinso's excellent book about the crash and the people involved. Ms Robinson also gave me permission to use some of these pictures in this post, and they made understanding just how the accident happened much easier. The books available from Amazon, BTW, the links up at teh beginning of 'Notes'.

This album's part of Conococheague Memories , a Facebook page about the history and memories of the Williamsport area, also hosted and maintained by Ms Robinson, and also an excellent site.

http://articles.herald-mail.com/2012-04-10/news/31321502_1_facebook-page-accident-victim-bus-train-crash    An article about Ms Robinson's book, published in the Hagarstown, Md Herald-Mail.

http://articles.herald-mail.com/2000-07-22/news/25136651_1_bus-crash-train-survivors
Another Daily Mail article, from July 2000, about a reunion of survivors of the accident.

http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-04-09/news/1995099001_1_williamsport-dead-students-washington-county   Baltimore Sun article about the accident and it's aftermath from April 95. the 60th anniversary of the crash.

https://reedbrothersdodgehistory.wordpress.com/historic-timeline/original-location-aerial-views/
A Wordpress post about the history of a Dodge dealership in Rockville, with some very interesting vintage aerial views. There's both a pic, from a distance, of the accident crossing (4th picture down), as well as a pic of the Viers Mill Rd bridge under construction (3rd pic down). Note about teh pictures...several of these pics are captioned as being from the 1920s when, in actuality, they are from the mid to late 30s.
 


3 comments:

  1. First of all, excellent story and pictures.

    "Steven's car was still peppy and agile for it's day, so its acceleration was more than enough to get him across the tracks with room to spare. The bus was maybe 175 feet away when he saw it coming towards him..."

    I don't have a source now (it was not "The Rockville Tragedy"), but I recall reading somewhere that Stevens was going in the same direction as the bus (not towards it) and passed it before reaching the intersection. The bus followed Stevens through the intersection, according to what I read.

    As you said, Perry Line had already had a long day before the field trip. However, as long as he wasn't doing this on a regular basis, he should have been able to handle it. According to what I read, Perry Line had a good driving record over 10 years when the owner of the bus recommended him for the job. It was found out after the hearing, however, that he had had an accident or two shortly before the tragedy.

    I also read that Perry Line went and had dinner while the students were at the exhibits. Did he have a nip with his dinner? Prohibition ended about 15 months before the tragedy. Was Perry Line one of those who 'made up for lost time'? If he didn't even know he was approaching an RR crossing, you have to wonder.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much! I try to make my posts readable as well as informative...thankfully I had a good bit of research material available to me on the Rockville bus crash.

      I got the fact that Stevens was coming towards the bus from the I.C.C. report...but by the same token those reports are written by bureaucrats who are interpreting what they were told, then transcribed by someone else, so it's quite possible that he was passing rather than meeting the bus...I think I remember Louise Funk as being quoted as saying the oncoming headlights didn't blind her, though. I've still got the PDF of the ICC report, I'm going to have to go back and reread it...It's not at all beyond the realm of possibility that I'm the one who did the misinterpreting here..

      The points that you bring out about Percy Line are all good ones, and the possibility that he had a nip or two with a late dinner never even occurred to me, to be honest...but it's more then possible, and would explain a lot about why he didn't realize he was approaching a crossing.

      I noticed that all of the drivers in the earlier bus/train crashes were considered to be good drivers. (It wasn't until the more recent accidents that drivers who were intentionally trying to beat a train or intentionally violating the law began showing up.). The perfect example of 'No matter how good you are, it only takes one screw-up to make a tragedy'.

      Delete
  2. Thank you for writing this. I am James "Jim" Flurie's niece. My uncle Jim was a wonderful young man who had a full scholarship to Juliard to play his violin. He was a great athlete and excelled in academics.Losing Jim left an indelible mark on our family.

    ReplyDelete