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Lumberton, NC Train Wreck, Dec 1943

NC Wreck 12-16-1943.jpg

Seventy-Nine Known Killed in Lumberton Train Crash.

Workers Seeking Other Bodies With Torch.

Lumberton, Dec. 17. -- (AP) - The toll of dead in the Southeast's worst railroad disaster mounted to 79 today, including 47 soldiers, as more bodies were located in four telescoped passenger, cars that still blocked the Atlantic Coast Line's double-track mainline from New York to Florida.
The Red Cross at Atlanta said bodies of 47 soldiers and 20 civilians had been recovered and that seven more bodies were known to be in one of the cars and five in another.
The four steel cars, stacked one on the other, were so jammed together that they were little bigger than one car is normally. The wrecking trains were able to move the pyramided coaches only six feet all night.
The double pileup of the two crack flyers produced a death list just short of that in the wreck of the Congressional Limited in Philadelphia last September when 80 persons lost their lives.
The Southeastern seaboard's worst previous train wreck occurred at Rockmart, Ga., in 1926, when 20 were killed. The biggest wreck toll in the nation's railroad history is 145 killed at Nashville, Tenn., July 9, 1918.
Workers toiled throughout the night and continued today in 12 degree weather to clear the tracks and remove the dead.
C. G. Sibley, vice-president of the Coast Line, today put the time of the derailment of No. 91, the southbound train, at 12:50 a. m. Northbound Train No. 8 struck the derailed cars between 1:25 and 1:30 a. m., Sibley said,
"Our information is that the fireman on Train 91 went ahead of his train to flag the northbound train, but did not succeed in stopping the train with his red lantern," the spokesman said in a statement. "He had a fuse but he stumbled and fell and it brake [sic] and he used his lantern."
"The engineer on No. 8 evidently did not see the fireman's signal. We understand that the sleet and snowstorm was still in progress at that time. The flagman on 91 went back to protect trains following on the southward track."
"A formal investigation will be held to develop the facts with respect to the action of the crews of both trains."
Earlier, the toll of dead - 48 servicemen and 21 civilians - was announced by Atlantic Coast Line railroad headquarters at Wilmington. Upwards of 50 persons were injured, many seriously.
Enough of the mass of telescoped cars and twisted rails was expected to be moved today to permit resumption of normal traffic.
Some civilians dead were still unidentified. Witnesses said a few victims were so dismembered it would be difficult to establish identity.
Names of the soldier dead were withheld pending notification of kin.
A broken rail, A.C.L. Officials said, caused the first wreck -- the derailment of three coaches of the Florida-bound Tamiami West Coast Champion. One person, First Lt. ROY A GRIFFIN, a student chaplain at Harvard university, was killed in this wreck.

Continued on Page 2.


The Wreck of the Two Tamiami Champions

16 Dec 1943 , Rennert, North Carolina
The Robesonian Newspaper
Blood on the tracks
By Tim Wilkins - Staff writer
RENNERT - It was a Thursday, Dec. 16, 1943, and bombs were falling
in Europe as hard and fast as the snowflakes that blanketed Robeson
County during a rare winter storm.
The snow put a freeze on activity in the county, but a hard thaw was
on the way. The tranquility would come to a screeching, screaming end
in the twisted metal that had been two passenger trains.
Seventy-two people - mostly soldiers heading home for the holidays -
would die on a desolate stretch of rail near Rennert, dozens of others
were maimed, and the lives of every Robesonian who was witness to
the carnage were forever altered.
Little is known about the accident, which retains the ignoble distinction
of the deadliest train wreck ever in North Carolina. That's due, in equal
parts, to the passage of time and the heavy military presence that
converged on the wreck. Since a majority of the victims were in the
armed services, officials from Fort Bragg responded and took over the
grisly scene, confiscating film and urging witnesses to clam up about the
wreck. The nation was neck deep in the second world war to end all wars,
and the Army was paranoid about the wreck being used as propaganda
to boost the morale of the Axis.
But there are still a handful of ancient, archival stories published in The
Robesonian at the time of the mishap that survive - articles long since
transferred to microfilm and filed away, left slumbering in the Robeson
County Public Library. And there are still men who remember that horrible
night - young men then, full of the life force they saw snatched from so
many in that cataclysmic melding of man and metal.
This is the story of two sons, two fathers and two trains, connected and
intertwined forever by the flawed, silver threads of railroad tracks that
glistened and cut through the cold Carolina night so many years ago.

Off the rails

It was after midnight and the headlight of the southbound Tamiami
Champion illuminated great, white flakes of snow in its Cyclops beam as
it rumbled through Robeson County at 85 mph. A star of the Atlantic Coast
Line railway, the purple locomotive known as Engine No. 91 was pulling
18 cars toward its ultimate destination of Miami.
Then, without warning, the brakes began squealing noisily, using friction
and steel to halt the locomotive dead on the tracks. When the conductor
and crew boiled out into the snow to have a look, they found that a broken
coupling and brake pipe between the second and third cars had caused a
brake leakage, locking up the locomotive's spinning wheels.
But that wasn't all.
To the conductor's horror, he saw that the last three passenger cars were
missing. Running like madmen over the rails and cinders and snow, they
found the missing cars, derailed and laying across the parallel northbound
lane about a half-mile down the line. A broken rail had caused the derailment
and subsequent uncoupling of the passenger cars. In a miracle reflecting the
character of the Yuletide season, none of the passengers had been harmed.
But all the passengers would have to be evacuated from the trains while the
crew attempted to pull the cars back onto the track and repair the shattered
section of rail.
The conductor, following protocol, directed his chief fireman to walk ahead of
the derailment and place safety flares, called fusees, on the northbound track
to warn any oncoming train of the potential catastrophe up ahead.
Unfortunately, the fireman slipped in the snow and fell, damaging the fusees
so they would not work.
Miles away to the south, the passengers of northbound Engine No. 9 had no
idea what awaited them.

The collision

Engine No. 9 shared the same name as it's purple twin of the Atlantic Coast Line.
The only differences between the two Tamiami Champions were the engine
numbers and direction they traveled - No. 91 made the trek from New York to
Miami, while No. 9 went from Miami to New York.
About 40 minutes after No. 91's derailment, No. 9 passed the stalled locomotive
on the parallel track. The engineer of No. 9 saw No. 91's headlight, but seeing no
safety flares, plowed ahead in excess of 80 mph. Witnesses said a passenger
on the stalled No. 91 grabbed a lantern and ran out into the night, waving
frantically at No. 9 as it passed, but the engineer apparently didn't see the warning light. Moments later, there was a tremendous shriek and grating of metal as the locomotive collided with the empty passenger cars. Bedlam followed.

First on the scene

Chalmers Biggs, 92, said he can still hear his father's voice in the telephone,
rousing him from a deep winter's sleep 60 years ago.
"Grab the ambulance and come get me," Donnie Biggs told his 32-year-old son.
"There's been some trouble."
Chalmers' father said little as they drove through the night into the countryside,
saying only there had been a bad train wreck and people needed help.
Donnie Biggs was the county coroner and owned a funeral home where Chalmers helped out, driving the ambulance and doing whatever else his father required. Chalmers had seen a lot of death in his three decades of life, but nothing prepared him for what he saw that terrible night.
Witnesses described the cars as having "telescoped" into each other after the
collision - four passenger cars were crushed into the size of one by the force of the impact. Trapped inside the mangled steel were the dead, dying and the maimed.
"It was indescribably awful," Chalmers said. "I drove as close to the wreck as I could and my father jumped out and immediately started helping pull people out of the wreckage. They loaded three patients into my ambulance and I drove as fast as I could to the hospital. On my way to the hospital, I passed the sheriff and a couple other ambulances. That's when I realized we had been the first on the scene."
A series of fortuitous events led to the Biggses' quick arrival.
As soon as the accident occurred, the engineer on No. 91 telegraphed to the rail office of the ACL line in Rocky Mount. The Rocky Mount operator was born and raised in Rennert and he knew the elder Biggs' telephone number. And he knew Biggs had an ambulance.
"My father was the first person who knew about the wreck," Chalmers said. "On my way over to pick him up, he called some other folks and told them what happened."
Chalmers said the wreck occurred off the main road and was hard to get to. Those who weren't badly hurt fashioned stretchers from mattresses, linens and pillow cases, and hauled the wounded to the ambulance.
Even though he could fit just three at a time into his ambulance, Chalmers remembers scores of the walking wounded trying to flag him down, begging for a ride to the hospital.
In addition to the injuries, the terrible cold - 12 degrees - compounded the problem with the threat of exposure. But it's the gore that haunts Chalmers to this day.
"There were some unbelievable injuries," Chalmers said. "Massive fractures and cuts and people missing arms and legs. Just horrible. On my second trip back to the scene, guys with acetylene torches had arrived and were cutting people out of the wreckage. That's a sight that has stayed with me all my life.
"Something like that can't help but change you."

Quite a scene

Biggs said his father stayed at the wreck all night, giving aid and comfort where he could.Eventually, an army of volunteers showed up, including the Army from nearby Fort Bragg, and a military contingent from Maxton Air Force Base.
Since almost all of the dead and wounded were soldiers, the military quickly took over the recovery process, confiscating film from curious onlookers, as well as the press.
"For security reasons," Biggs was told.
But a place where the Army could not pull rank was over at Baker Sanitarium - one of Lumberton's two hospitals. H.M. Baker Sr. was the chief surgeon and founder of the hospital, and he became more than a mere doctor as he worked through the night to save as many lives as possible - before the very eyes of his son, Horace Baker, he turned into a hero.
"I was a senior medical student at Duke, so I wasn't there that night," said Baker, now a retired doctor who still lives in Lumberton. "But I went home the next day for Christmas holiday and made the rounds with my father. He was exhausted - hadn't slept in 36 hours. He was up all night working with patients. But he never wavered."
Things were a lot different in those days. No blood banks - blood was collected by the Red Cross at the time of the accident and the people of Robeson County were happy to give, Baker said.
Medical supplies were also limited by the war effort. All the penicillin went to the front, which meant the staff had only sulfa to treat wounds.
To make matters even worse, the medical staff was at half-strength with the missing doctors deployed overseas or at military hospitals.
"It was quite a scene," Baker said. "The beds were all filled rather soon. Father was treating patients in the hallways, stabilizing those who didn't need emergency surgery, them moving on to the more serious."
Despite their heavy-handedness in censoring the events, the military proved to be a true lifesaver, Baker said. It donated blankets and furnished ambulances and transported many of the wounded to hospitals in Fayetteville and Florence, S.C.
But the biggest lifesaver was Baker's father.
"There were so many tragic stories that day," Baker said. "Terrible, terrible injuries. One memory that sticks with me is a woman who had been headed for New York. She was in charge of a fashion show in which Frank Sinatra was singing. She had severe leg injuries and it looked like she would lose her foot. Well, you can imagine what that would do to a woman who makes her living in fashion. But my father was able to save her foot.
"There's no telling how many lives and limbs he saved that night."


The final, dark tally was 72 dead and more than 50 wounded.
It remains the worst railroad accident in the state's history.
And despite the censorship of the day, the accident made national headlines and the wreck scene became a gruesome pilgrimage for many, drawing as many as 20,000 curious bystanders at one time, according to local law enforcement.
A few of the dead ended up at local funeral homes like the one owned by Biggs, but most of the bodies were shipped home by the military.
The community rallied around the surviving victims, welcoming them into their homes until they could make travel arrangements.
"It was our community showing its best side in the worst of times," Baker said. "Everybody pitched in to help, and everybody that helped was changed by the experience. I know I was."

Wreck of the "Tamiami Champion"
Rennert, North Carolina, USA

Rennert, North Carolina 16 December 1943, Atlantic Coast Line. The
northbound Tamiami Champion collided with derailed cars of its
southbound cousin . . . Photo: Corbis-Bettmann/UPI
A rail-mounted crane assists in the removal of the wreckage of the
"Tamiami Champion"

Despite the wartime conditions, the "Tamiami Champion"
southbound was making good progress as it approached Rennert.
It was a bitterly cold morning and there was some snow on the
ground from an earlier fall. Without warning, the eighteen car train
came to halt as the brakes began to leak on. The conductor and
other members of the crew set about finding the cause and soon
discovered a broken coupling and brake pipe between the second
and third cars.

What they were not aware of was the cause of the breakage.
Towards the rear of the train almost half a mile away, the last three
cars were derailed. A broken rail was the cause. The cars were
deflected towards the opposite, northbound line which they now
fouled. The first of the derailed cars was leaning over at angle of
about 45o. The rear brakeman immediately began evacuating the
passengers from these cars. When this was complete, he showed
a light to the men working at the front of the train, but failed to
inform them of what had transpired at his end.

While they started to repair the broken coupling, the conductor sent
the fireman forward to "flag" oncoming trains to warn them of the
problem. The fireman had with him a fusee, but he did not take any
detonators which he could have placed on the track as a warning.
As he walked along the track, he slipped in the snow and fell,
damaging the fusee so that it would not work.

In the distance the northbound "Tamiami Champion" approached at
a speed in excess of 85 mph. The fireman tried to light his fusee,
but on finding it usless he had nothing except his waving to warn
the train. The diesel-hauled train passed him without the crew
becoming aware of the danger that lay ahead of them. Indeed, the
first the engineer knew of the predicament of the southbound train
was as he passed its locomotive and saw a light being shown. A
passenger had taken it from one of the cars and was frantically
waving it towards the speeding train. But this warning came too
late and an accident was inevitable. Although the brakes were
applied, the train struck the stricken cars with hardly any
slackening of pace. Seventy-four people died in the crash, most
of them servicemen travelling in the northbound train. Only one
traveller on the southbound was killed. The casualty list also
included 54 injured.

Tamiami Champion Schedules Equipment, Inaugural 1941
summer season.
When enough streamlined equipment was available, the Champion
began operating sections to both Miami and Tampa with the name
Tamiami Champion. After a horrible wreck in 1943 the name
Tamiami was banished, the two trains eventually were renamed
East Coast Champion and West Coast Champion.

List of Victims/Injured in NC Train Wreck, Dec 1943

Have you been able to identify a more complete list of those killed and injured in the Lumberton, NC Train Wreck from Dec 1943? If not, any suggestions on where to look for a list of those killed/injured? Thanks!

My uncle, Lester W. Graham,

My uncle, Lester W. Graham, 19 of Ambridge, PA, Private, US Army was killed in this train wreck. He was on his way home for the holidays. I was working on family history and searching for information on my Graham family when I came upon his death certificate. There are many, many of these listed, one after another, military personnel and civilians. Very sad. I clicked an arrow thinking it would show me more of his record as it said "over" on the bottom of his certificate and as I clicked it kept taking me to more death certificates.

Happed about 2 miles north

Happed about 2 miles north of Buie. Which is about 1/4 mile north of NC HWY 211

article | by Dr. Radut