CATASTROPHE: Wreck of the Congressional

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Past North Philadelphia station, the Pennsylvania Railroad's crack Congressional (three and a half hours from Washington to Manhattan) thundered toward New York City. Three miles later, still inside Philadelphia's crowded city limits, it cracked apart in one of the most spectacular wrecks in U.S. railroad history.*

At the front of the seventh car, a journal (wheel bearing) burned out. With a tremendous lurch, the train snapped in two. In the rear cars, there were a few ghastly moments when the passengers' felt as if the train were floating through air. Then the crash.

To the 50 people in the diner, their car seemed to whip sideways across the track. Headwaiter Bailey Beard saw a dozen men & women thrown through the windows, saw one woman's head cut off. Off the tracks went another diner, two Pullmans, five coaches—nine of the train's 16 cars. They piled up in a great, hasty W, tearing up the rails, twisting them like horseshoes. One coach was crumpled like an accordion. Another, slithering off the rails, hit a signal tower, was sliced in two from end to end.

To the scene swarmed police-air-raid wardens, civilian-defense workers, hundreds of plain Philadelphians. Two hundred servicemen, riding in cars that were not smashed, helped pick up dead and injured scattered for four blocks.

At nearby Frankford Hospital, the dead were taken to the basement, the injured upstairs. Soon Frankford Hospital had to report that it could handle no more patients. The ambulances moved on to other hospitals, to Philadelphia's Navy Yard.

The four main tracks of the Pennsylvania main line were completely blocked; following trains had to make two-hour detours. Night came.

Searchlights went on, in a mad chiaroscuro. Wrecking crews turned acetylene torches on the cars, to cut away the wreckage, clear the way to those trapped inside.

The Philadelphia Inquirer counted 75 dead. Until the last of the wreckage had been cleared away, no one would know the full extent of the disaster.

*Worst train wreck in U.S. history: 115 killed near Nashville, Tenn. in 1918. Worst train wreck of all time: more than 500 French soldiers, going home for Christmas leave, killed when an overloaded troop train plunged into an Alpine pass at St. Michel in 1917.