MARCH 22 – One Marcellus High School lad was instantly killed and several other students were badly injured when a truck loaded with 44 merry youths and maidens, en route to a basketball game at Manlius, was struck by a fast New York Central train at the Kirkville grade crossing, east of Syracuse, shortly before 8 o’clock Monday night.
Five of the more seriously injured boys were removed to Crouse-Irving Hospital in this city, where it was reported Tuesday that all would recover and are doing well. None of the 18 girls in the party suffered serious injury.
Harold Wilson, 13, of Marcellus, was the only fatality in what escaped being a horrible disaster by an extremely narrow margin. Young Wilson, standing at the rear of the truck, where it was struck by the on-coming engine of Train No. 41, was literally wound about the steel girder support of the crossing warning to the south of the tracks, his head crushed in and many bones of his body broken, death being instantaneous.
Providence, luck, fate – call it what one will – saved Central New York from one of its greatest tragedies by the breadth of a few feet and the space of split seconds.
As it is, the terrible death of the one lad of the merry party and the serious injury of at least five more of the truck load of youths and maidens, bound on a gala holiday, has brought sadness to many homes in the village of Marcellus, while in the homes of many others are going up prayers of thanksgiving that it was no worse.
Reports differ as to what actually happened in the few horror-stricken seconds just prior to the tragedy, with only those directly concerned eye-witnesses.
Gaiety Turned to Horror.
One moment the big two-ton truck filled to overflowing with joyous students was speeding toward the fatal grade crossing, while, unseen, down the straight, east stretch of the five tracks, was rushing the speeding train at the rate of from 65 to 70 miles an hour.
Only a scant moment later and the air was rent with shrieks of the injured boys and hysterical high school girls. One of their comrades was lying dead, while a piled-up mass of boys and girls, several with broken and crushed limbs, lay beside the dead lad’s silent form.
It is said that Towerman George A. Levey, on duty at the time, had lowered the gates at the whistle of the train at the whistling post, a half mile down the line when he saw the headlights of the approaching truck and realizing that it would crash into the lowered gates, raised them again; that the truck had gotten nearly across and seemed to hesitate a fraction of a second before clearing all the tracks and that that fraction of a second was the fatal one.
This statement was made by Day Towerman William Naatz, who lives a few rods from the scene of the accident and who was the first outsider on the scene. He gave this version of the tragedy as told to him by Levey, to a Journal reporter.
Story of Driver.
According to Zeofil Czarnocki, driver of the truck, the gates were not lowered as the truck approached the tracks, he claiming they dropped as the truck crossed the first track. Realizing his danger, Czarnecki made a desperate attempt to beat the train and get across to safety, but to no avail, the giant engine of the speeding train striking the rear of the truck and crushing its framework like a box of matches and scattering the young people amidst the masses of straw in its bottom, which had been utilized to make of the affair an old-fashioned straw ride with modern settings.
Probably only the rigid investigation of Coroner S. Ellis Crane will determine the exact responsibility for the tragedy. This probe, the coroner asserts, will be thorough, with every effort to place blame, if blame there is, exactly where it belongs.
Train No. 41, rushing westward, struck the truck on the side away from the engineer and sped on its way without anyone on board the train being aware of what had happened.
Sister of Dead Boy in Party.
Of the 18 girls in the party, among them a sister of the lad killed, jammed into improvised seats along the sides of the big truck, not one was seriously hurt although several suffered minor injuries. This is accounted for by the fact that most of them were seated well toward the front, while the speeding engine struck the rear of the truck.
Fate played another part in the tragedy by sending the party on a detour, caused by a bridge being down at Manlius Center, on the regular Manlius road. This bridge was taken down by a heavily-loaded truck early in the winter. It was this which decided Czarnecki on the detour which resulted so fatally.
Scene of Accident.
Though not considered a dangerous crossing, a study of it in the light of the present tragedy reveals many reasons why an accident like this one might occur.
At this point there are five railroad tracks. The three to the north are freight tracks and the two to the south are the regular east and west bound passenger tracks. The train which struck the truck was speeding west and on the inside of the two passenger tracks. At the time of the crash, the truck had crossed nearly over the inside track and was still on the outer, or east bound one.
To the east there is a straight stretch of the five sets of rails before a curve shuts off the view. On the south side of the crossing and but a few yards to the west is located the tower, from which the crossing gates are lowered and raised. On each side of the highway on the west side stretch lines of trees which block the view from the tower, especially in the summer, they coming to within from 20 yards on the south to 20 to 30 yards on the north side of the tracks.
Train Hidden By Cars.
In spite of the straight stretch of tracks to the east, even had it been daylight, the on-rushing train might not have been seen by the driver of the truck or his party owing to two tracks with several freight cars thereon and backed by a building, apparently a garage, all at the north side from which the track was coming.
As it was shortly before 8 o’clock at night, it was extremely dark. The crossing has no lights except its railroad block signal lights and it is a “silent” one, there being no warning bell.
All of these things may account for the truck load of merry youngsters being utterly unaware of the impending danger rushing upon their path.
Train No. 41, due at the crossing at 7:45, was one minute late last night. With nothing but the glare of its headlight straight ahead and a roar to warn of its approach, it is said to have dashed over the crossing at an estimated speed of between 65 and 70 miles an hour as it struck the truck load of merrymakers.”
“I was in my house just to the south of the crossing, when I heard the crash,” said Towerman Naatz to a Journal reporter. “I rushed to the scene. It was a terrible one. Girls were running around screaming and crying out from both hurts and fright. The Wilson boy lay dead in a pool of his own blood at the foot of the crossing warning post, while others injured lay in a heap by his side, moaning and crying.
Cared for Injured.
“As soon as other help reached the scene, we took the injured ones into my house, where they were cared for while awaiting the coming of ambulances from the city.”
There is no physician in the hamlet of Kirkville and it is a strange fact that, with all the turmoil incident to the tragedy, many people of the little town did not know of the accident until this morning.
Spectators at the scene of the tragedy shuddered at the stained spot where the blood of young Wilson had soaked into the cinders and gravel of the roadbed beside the tracks – the spot where his dead body was found.
Train No. 41, according to its schedule, is never allowed to make speed less than 60 miles an hour, according to railroad workers seen.
Towerman Naatz tells of the primitive method used in the case of one lad with a broken thigh, nothing but a piece of board being available for a temporary splint for the broken limb until removed to the hospital.
“And while he was taking his medicine like a Trojan,” said Naatz, “One other boy with only a bruise on his leg was so excited worrying the doctor to know what he would do for him.”
In the fatal truck, bearing the business lettering of the Dunn Trucking Service of Syracuse, was Miss Margaret O’Reilly, teacher and chaperon, who escaped injury.
Principal P. K. Helfer and the nine girls who make up the Marcellus girls’ team, left that village at 6 o’clock in a touring car. The death-fated truck contained the rest of the party – the “rooters.”
The game to which they were bound had been looked forward to as one of the big events of the season, it being the third in a series between the girls’ teams of the two schools. Each team had scored one victory and the game played Monday night was to be hotly contested and all students who could get there intended to be present.
Thrown into Heap of Struggling.
Of the injured, the LaRose brothers, sitting at the rear end of the truck, were thrown in the heap of struggling bodies in the roadway by the side of the tracks. Bessie, sitting just ahead of the lad who was killed, was crushed against the side of the car. Masters and O’Shea were caught under the mass of bodies as they were hurled to the bottom of the truck. Many were left in the bottom of the truck in a tangled heap.
The first physician on the scene was Dr. Irving Bishop, who administered first aid and had the hospitals of the city notified. The Crouse-Irving ambulance took in the five boys most seriously hurt while Coroner Crane, summoned to the scene, took in the dead body of young Wilson.
Dr. Bishop Rises to Emergency.
Dr. Bishop had a difficult task and was highly praised for the manner in which he met the emergency and organized such scanty forces a he could command for the aid of the suffering.
Miss O’Reilly remained with the injured and accompanied them to the hospital. Arthur Wilson, a brother of the dead boy, remained with his brother’s body and accompanied it to the morgue.
Uninjured survivors of the tragedy were taken to the city on a special car over the Oneida line. After a wait here of an hour, during which telephones to their Marcellus homes were kept busy, they left on the 10 o’clock car for that village.
Knowing nothing of the tragic outcome of the trip of its “rooters,” the girls’ basketball team played their game at Manlius, winning the crucial contest by a score of 8 to 6. Not until after the game had ended was Principal Helfer notified of the accident, though all wondered as to the whereabouts of the rooters.