The Great Naperville Train Disaster

The Naperville train disaster, as it will forever be known, occurred on April 25, 1946, on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad at Loomis Street in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois.  The Advance Flyer had made an unscheduled stop on the tracks, and was struck by the Exposition Flyer which rounded a curve at 85 mph and was surprised by the train on the tracks.  45 people died, 125 were injured, and the scenes of chaos left a mark on everyone who saw them. We pick up the story with the April 26, 1946 issue of the Chicago Tribune:



100 Passengers Are Injured; Arrest Is Ordered

At least 47 persons were killed and 100 injured yesterday when the crack Burlington railroad train, the Exposition Flyer, crashed at a speed of nearly 75 miles an hour into the rear of the stalled Advance Flyer in Naperville, Du Page county, 28 miles southwest of Chicago.

The Advance Flyer had made an unscheduled stop.  The Exposition Flyer ripped into it exactly 90 seconds later.

Up to midnight 41 bodies - 13 women, two children, and 26 men - had been recovered and rescue workers said that at least six more remained in the wreckage.  Of the injured, however, only 30 were required to stay in hospitals.  Many of these were said to be in critical condition.

Rescuers at work in the wreckage. (Photo from the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection)

Rescuers at work in the wreckage. (Photo from the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection)

Too High Speed Admitted

The wreck was the worst in the Chicago area's history.  Its cause was not immediately ascertained, but several factors were involved.  One was admittedly too high speed, with the flyers so close together.  Another was what might be called the caprice of fate.

The scene of the disaster was one of twisted and gnarled confusion, with huge luxury passenger coaches strewn across torn tracks like abandoned toy trains.  But it was a grim scene, with sudden death its background.

"We were going too fast," admitted W. W. Blaine, 68, of Galesburg, Knox county, veteran engineer of the Exposition Flyer.  He said that he was going 85 miles an hour when he noticed the first of two warning signals, but that altho [sic] he applied his brakes at once he had too little distance to stop in time.

Engineer's Arrest Ordered

A warrant charging Blaine with manslaughter was issued last night by Justice of the Peace Joseph Bopst of Naperville on request of State's Atty. Lee Daniels of Du Page county.  The warrant accused the engineer of "careless and negligent operation of a train" and by so doing causing the death of Albert J. Lane, a passenger.

Both trains were fast diesel powered expresses.  The Advance Flyer, bound for Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., carried nine coaches and 150 to 200 passengers and crew members. The Exposition Flyer, bound for Oakland, Cal., carried 11 coaches and 175 to 200 persons.

The two Burlington trains left the Union station at 12:35 p.m. on separate tracks, but after a few miles rolled into a single center track, with the Advance Flyer in the lead.  They were being operated theoretically as one train, but the Advance Flyer ran on a faster schedule.

The Advance Flyer raced thru Downers Grove at 12:57 p.m., 60 seconds late.  The Exposition Flyer followed about three minutes later. Along this stretch the flyers often speed 80 miles an hour.

About five miles west an unexplained incident - the caprice of fate - occurred.  Something, it might have been a flash of flame or a small rock, shot out from under the speeding Advance Flyer.

First Flyer Halted

Whatever it was, it was enough to disturb the train crew and Engineer A. W. Anderson of Galesburg brought his train to a stop at a point near Loomis st. in Naperville.  Anderson and his crew alighted for an inspection, some suspecting a hotbox.

As the train made its unscheduled stop, the Burlington Line's automatic control system went into operation. A yellow light calling for caution was lighted up 7,784 feet east, and a red light calling for a mandatory stop was turned on 1,100 feet east.

At the same time, James Tangney of Aurora, flagman on the stalled train, ran thru the rear car, jumped off its platform, and called back to curious passengers, "I'm going to try to stop that train behind us."

Fireman Jumps - and Dies

Tangney made no more than a dozen steps before the Exposition Flyer rounded a curve to the east, and hit the straight stretch directly toward the Advance Flyer, its brakes screeching, but its speed showing no appreciable lessening. Tangney signaled futiley, then leaped aside.

"It came fast," said Raymond J. Jaeger, 26, of Burlington, Ia, a wounded marine, who was standing at the rear platform of the standing train. "I watched it horrified. The train came on, bigger and bigger. I saw a man climbing from the engine cab, and start down the ladder. That's all I saw. The next second it hit."

The man he saw climbing down was Curtis H. Crayton of Galesburg, the Exposition Flyer's fireman. He jumped an instant before the crash - and was killed.

The jagged wreckage. (Photo from the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection)

The jagged wreckage. (Photo from the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection)

Engineer Sticks to Post

Engineer Blaine stayed at his brakes and throttle as his train raced on. Then it struck. Its flat, silver nose plowed into the rear steel coach of the Advance Flyer as if the car were a cigar box. For a second the engine appeared to poise in the air, tear thru the roof, then plunge down with terrific force upon the very floor and trucks of the car.

The terrific crash shook the two trains, but almost all damage was confined to the Advance Flyer. The diner just ahead of the telescoped rear coach buckled under the impact and was torn into a heap of shredded steel and debris. The third car from the end was half overturned and the fourth car completely overturned.

Coaches Upset in Crash

In all six coaches were overturned or derailed on the Advance Flyer and five on the Exposition Flyer.

Almost all the dead were killed in the rear coach and diner of the Advance Flyer and most of the injured were passengers in two or three cars ahead.  Half a dozen were injured, however, on the Exposition Express.

The first seven coaches and diner of the Advance Flyer were of streamline, light metal model. The rear coach which caught the main force of the 75 mile an hour crash, was an old type steel Pullman car, considerably heavier than the others.

The sound of the crash roared thru the countryside and was followed by tragic silence. Then came screams and cries for help as surviving passengers, recovering from the first shock, realized what had occurred.

Heroes and heroines turned up in every car, as women and young people, including children, groped in bewilderment for escape.

In the overturned coach, R. H. Barrett and J. N. Nemeth, railroad men from Lincoln, Neb., helped calm frightened women and youngsters and pulled them from under heaps of baggage. "Everybody was quite calm, altho stunned," said Barrett.

In another car, George Whitney of Council Bluffs, Ia., a navy veteran of many battles, helped a score of passengers thru windows to safety.  "He did the work of 10 men," said one witness. "Whitney also helped carry out 17 dead."

Help Swift to Come

Help was swiftly forthcoming to the disaster stricken passengers. Across the tracks, 800 employees [sic] of the Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing company stopped work, and ran out by the hundreds to help. Fifty students at North Central college abandoned classes to serve as little bearers.

Martin Prignitz, a Naperville policeman, ran from his near-by home, saw the tragedy, and promptly turned in calls to near-by towns for aid.  In minutes, doctors, nurses, and ambulances were racing to the scene from Aurora, Hinsdale, Downers Grove, Naperville, and other communities.

Rescue lines were formed. Labor crews with acetylene torches started burning thru twisted metal train plates to reach the injured and dead.

The warehouse of the Kroehler company was converted into a temporary hospital. All injured were taken there for first aid. The more serious cases were speeded to hospitals in Aurora. Three priests, the Reverends Frederick Stenger, Paul Benson, and Charles Koretke, passed among the stricken and administered last sacraments of the Catholic church.

Before long, more doctors and nurses reached the scene on a special Burlington relief train, and 50 more followed under the wing of the Chicago chapter of the Red Cross.

In the midst of the excitement, Engineer Blaine of the Exposition Flyer, crawled without help thru the window of his cab, picked his way thru the shattered remnants of the rear coach of the Advance Flyer, and found his way into the emergency hospital.

Forlorn Passengers Cared For

Passengers, some with relatives missing or injured, and most of their personal belonging inside the wrecked coaches, wandered forlornly around the tracks until, finally, they were marshalled together, and put on special trains back to Chicago.

One by one the bodies of the dead, some mangled beyond recognition, were removed from the last two coaches of the Advance Flyer and taken to funeral chapels in Naperville.  Later three of the injured taken to Aurora hospitals died.

It's always those little personal details that come out after a disaster such as this that leave the most impact.  Like this sad little snippet from same paper:


One of the injured men taken out of the rear car of the Advance Flyer after yesterday's tragic wreck at Naperville was Delbert Boon, a sailor of Luray, Mo.

His first act after reaching St. Charles hospital in Aurora, was to send a telegram to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Boon.  It read, "Come and see me. Was in train accident."

He died 30 minutes later.

And then came further tales from survivors.  (April 26, 1946 Chicago Tribune)

Survivors Tell of Terror Within the Smashed Car

Victims of the Burlington railroad disaster told late yesterday in St. Charles hospital, Aurora, of the terror that gripped passengers trapped in the rear car of the Advance Flyer when it was rammed by the Exposition Flyer at Naperville.

Their initial shock and fright was increased by the fear of fire when acetylene torches dropped sparks into the car as workmen tried to rescue them. Many were caught under twisted seats and wreckage - beneath bodies and luggage.

An aerial view of the crash scene.

An aerial view of the crash scene.

Women Thrown Into Air

Mrs. Irene Cook, 20, was on her way with her mother, Mrs. Florence Whitehouse, from Schenectady, N.Y., to a new home in Kahoka, Mo.

"I was in the rear car of the first train," Mrs. Cook said. "The train [Advance Flyer] was standing. I was seated facing the approaching train, but it all happened so fast, I didn't see it clearly."

"Suddenly I must have been thrown into the air," she said, "because I remember hitting the seat twice with my head and waking up under a pile of people and seats. My mother was buried beneath another seat, a man and a woman.

"There was much screaming and I was as frightened when rescued as when the crash occurred.  The men came with their torches thru the top of the car and sparks fell. We were afraid they would ignite oil in the car.  One of my legs was caught under something, but I pulled it free and went around putting out the sparks as they fell."

Mother Suffers Loss of Leg

"Even before the rescuers started working, we were frightened by the smell of ashes. I was taken out a window, but I haven't yet heard what happened to my mother."

Her mother, whose address was given as 161 Manor av, Cohoes, N.Y., meanwhile had been taken to the Copley hospital in Aurora. She suffered a leg amputation.

Seated near Mrs. Cook and her mother before the crash was Mrs. Anne Hovey, 72, of Kookuk, In., whose legs were fractured by the train's impact.

"Things happened so fast," Mrs. Hovey said, "that I don't remember what happened to me. I was doubled up suddenly and my knees were pushed against my chest."

Couple Saved Thru Window

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Faber of Kookuk, In., also in the rear car, said "everything fell on us" when the trains collided.  They were rescued thru a window. Faber was released from the marine corps two days ago after serving without injury.  He suffered internal injuries in the train crash.

Woman Sees Trains Crash

Miss Rose Hodel, 21, was hanging up clothes for her mother in the yard of their Naperville home when the Advance Flyer drew to a stop on the near-by track.

"It's unusual for the train to stop there unless it has a hotbox or something," Miss Hodel said, "so I stood there and watched the men go around and look at the wheels.

"About that time, there was another train coming and I happened to look up that way.  Suddenly there was a terrific crash and debris flew up in the air."

Women Give Help

For some moments, she said, the scene was clouded by dust, smoke, and flying paper, then she and some of her neighbors hurried to the tracks.

"After the Naperville fire department got there," Miss Hodel said, "we helped to homes in the neighborhood people who could walk. After the ambulances and the doctors got there, we didn't do much because they had nurses, but we did carry water and give what help we could.

"The whole thing looked to me like one mass of piled up tin. Injured persons were lying all around. They had an awful time getting them out of the wreckage.

"There was just a little moaning, because most of those who were hurt were so badly injured they didn't know it, or were unconscious.  It took about an hour and a half to get all the injured out."

Wesley Overman, Caldwell, Idaho, passenger in a middle coach of the Advance Flyer said:

"I saw a baby thrown from its mother's arms when the coach lurched, but an army lieutenant grabbed it and I think it wasn't hurt."

Sol Greenbaum, 27, of St. Louis, Mo., who was injured said he watched the Exposition Flyer pull out of the Union station yards along side the Advance Flying [sic], which he was riding.

"I settled down for a nap, rousing a little when we stopped from some unknown reason," Greenbaum said. "The next thing I knew, I was somersaulting thru the air. I landed on a pile of debris at the end of the car. I pushed my hand thru a window and some one pulled me out."

Wounded Marine a Survivor

The Rev. Leo McNamars, priest at St. Adrian's church, 7000 S. Washtenaw av., appeared at St. Charles hospital searching for Msgr. Bernard J. Sinne of St Mary Magdalene's church, Omaha, Neb., who was scheduled to leave on the noon train. Father McNamara learned later that Msgr. Sinne left on another line.

Marine Pvt. Raymond Jaeger of Burlington, Ia. , who has one arm and one leg in casts as a result of war wounds, and was a passenger in the rear car of the rammed train, survived the wreck with nothing worse than shock and bruises.

"I don't know how I got out alive," he said at the St. Charles hospital.

In the end, the Grand Jury did not find any individual responsible for the crash.  Nine negligent acts were mentioned as contributing factors - from the October 5, 1946 Chicago Tribune:
  1. Stopping of the advance Flyer ... without proper thought of the speeding train only two minutes behind.
  2. Stopping of the Advance Flyer on a curve where visibility for the second train was impaired.
  3. Lack of a proper device or method for signaling the oncoming second train.
  4. Scheduling of the two fast trains only two minutes apart on the same track.
  5. Alleged prevalence of a habit among engineers of disregarding a yellow caution light in an effort to make schedules and lack of criticism by the railroad of this practice.
  6. Too short spacing of block signals so that the second train had only two miles to stop when going 85 miles per hour.
  7. Lack of intercommunication between conductors and engineers on the trains and lack of intercommunication between the trains and control points.
  8. Failure to test the emergency brakes as well as the service brakes before the trip was started.
  9. Operation of both lightweight cars and standard weight cars in the same train which provided unequal braking power when brakes were applied.
It's interesting to note that this crash is one of the main reasons why we don't have high-speed trains in America.  One of the precautions that was put in place was to limit most trains to 79 mph. When I was in Naperville, I had to visit the site of the famous crash - and a train even obliged me by coming towards me down the track.  You can still see the old Kroehler Furniture factory (which closed in 1978) in the background.
Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair. Camera: Holga 120N, Film: Ilford HP5+

Photo by The Comtesse DeSpair. Camera: Holga 120N, Film: Ilford HP5+


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