It could have been much worse
James A. "Chick" O'Shea (1906-1990) was born an raised in Marcellus New York, but after he married Ellen V. "Nellie" Major, he moved a few miles west to where his wife had grown up, Skaneateles Falls, a tiny village that many Majors called home.

However, it was while he was a teenager and a student at Marcellus High School, that O'Shea was involved – and injured – in what narrowly missed being one of most horrific accidents in Central New York history. As it was, the 1921 incident was a tragedy that resulted in the death of one Marcellus youngster, Harold Wilson.

But everyone who had a friend or relative traveling hayride style in the back of the truck that was clipped by a speeding train at the Kirkville crossing, a few miles east of Syracuse, must have found their sorrow tempered by a huge feeling of relief. Even for the parents of the dead boy, the accident could have been much, much worse.

The Syracuse Journal printed the list of of those in the truck. One was dead, five seriously injured and 10 were being treated for less serious injuries:

Harold Wilson, 13, instantly killed.

James O’Shea, 15, fracture of left leg, fracture of left kneecap, possible internal injuries; condition serious.

Joseph LaRose, 17, fracture of left thigh, fracture of left hand, face and head badly bruised; condition critical.

William C. Bessie, 17, head crushed, cerebral concussion; condition serious.

Edward La Rose, 18, fracture of left hand, left thigh bruised; condition not serious.

Edward Masters, 15, wrenched back and legs; condition not serious.

Thomas Coyne, 13, head bruised; William Rhodes, 15, arm strained; Dorothy Hicks, 13, bruises; Bertha Smith, 15, bruises; Andrew Phillips, 17, bruises.

OTHER Marcellus boys and girls in the party included:

Adelaide Smith, Betty Helfer, Sadie Wright, Ethel Hicks, Mabel Wright, Margaret Anderson, Gertrude Olney, Margaret Malcolm, Alice Waite, Lila Armstrong, Fannie Wilson, Alice Thornton, Marian Masters.

Seymour Parsons, Rollo Wicks, Joseph Thornton, Vernon Hyatt, Austin Woodford, Paul Clark, Francis Kelley, Vernon McClaren, Henry Phillips, Kenneth Spaulding, Harold Powell, John Dunlop, Charles Black, Edward Seeley, Paul McAvoy, Clarence A. W. Newell and Arthur Wilson.

Zeofil Czarnecki, 101 Liberty St., Syracuse, was driver of the ill-fated truck. George Klasey, 508 Marquette St., Syracuse, was with him, and Miss O’Reilly was in charge of the party.

Syracuse Journal
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.


Syracuse Post-Standard
Something Wrong at Gates,
Decision of Coroner Crane

MARCH 22 – In a statement given last evening, Coroner N. Ellis Crane expressed his belief that something was radically wrong with the operation of the gates.

“Had the gates been lowered at the proper time, the accident might not have occurred,” Dr. Crane stated. “Reasonable proof is evident, inasmuch as the gates were not smashed by the truck as they would have been had they been down.

“I have talked with George Levy, who operates the gates from the switch tower. He thought the driver of the truck proceeded too slowly while on the crossing. He should never had his truck in such a position had he been warned by the lowering of the gates.

“I shall conduct a thorough investigation of the fatality and hope that my report will place responsibility where it belongs.”


Syracuse Post-Standard
Signal Tower Operator
Held After Inquiry

MARCH 23 – George A. Levey of No. 1115 East Genesee Street, in charge of the signal tower at the Kirkville railroad crossing where a truck filled with Marcellus High School students was hit by a train Monday night, was arrested at 1:30 o’clock this morning by Sheriff Ten Eyck at No. 610 Jackson Street, where he was located by Detective Donovan. The arrest was made on orders of Coroner Crane, who decided to hold Levey, pending the investigation into the death of Harold Wilson, 13-year-old victim of the accident.

Early efforts to find Levey proved futile, the news of his intended arrest being on the streets before the police and sheriff’s office were directed to take him into custody.

The order of Levey’s arrest was issued after the coroner and Clarence Unckless, assistant district attorney, had spent several hours in an investigation at Kirkville. Altho they declined, pending the formal inquest, to lay responsibility for the accident at Levey’s door, they admitted that they “wanted him in custody while the investigation is going on.”

Crane Tells of Inquiry.
“I went up to the tower, from which the guard gates are raised and lowered on the crossing,” said Coroner Crane. “The operator showed us exactly how the signals and levers work.

“Levey had ample warning of the approach of the train when it was three miles from the crossing. He could see it when it was one mile from the crossing. There is no apparent reasons, as matters stand now, for his failure to lower the gates long before the truck reached the tracks.

“I was awed by the realization, today, of what almost happened at that crossing. If only one more foot of the truck had been on the track when the engine struck it, the little village of Marcellus would be a pitifully sad and desolated community tonight. I cannot conceive how one of those 44 little children could have escaped alive.

“That even one of those little lives should be sacrificed to carelessness is a terrible thing; that 43 others should be save only by a hand’s breadth is even more awful to contemplate. For my part, I intend to see that carelessness, if I find any, is punished in the way it deserves.”

Marcellus Stricken.
Marcellus was a queerly mingled community of contrasting emotions yesterday. Scarcely a home in the village village but felt a personal connection with the Kirkville tragedy; almost every resident of the little community is related, in some way or another, to one of the passengers on the ill-fated truck. Rejoicing at the escape of some was tempered with sadness for the less kindly fate of others, and awed thankfulness that a fraction of a second saved the entire village from a somber cloud of sorrow and despair.

The body of little Harold Wilson, who, alone among the party, was sacrificed, was taken early in the day to the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Wilson in North Street.

The five boys most seriously injured – Joseph and Edward LaRose, William C. Bessie, Edward Masters and James O’Shea – remained at Crouse-Irving Hospital, where all of them were reported out of danger last night and doing well. Parents and relatives of all of them were with them yesterday, and two or three probably will be moved to their homes today.

Miss Margaret O’Reilly, teacher and chaperon of the truck party, was at her home at No. 105 McKinley Street, Syracuse, where she was under the care of her physician. Heroic in the emergency, she was of invaluable service in the work of caring for the injured and quelling a panic among those who escaped. It was not until yesterday that it was found she had been badly cut and bruised and her nerves subjected to a shock that left her weak and helpless after the need for action had passed.

School was dismissed in Marcellus and Principal P. H. Helfer, whose daughter was one of the girls on the shattered truck, permitted the children to remain at home to recover from the shock and fright of the tragedy. The streets of the village were filled with quiet groups of people, even then only beginning to comprehend the enormity of the horror they barely escaped.


This is a difficult story to recreate mentally. For one thing, without a 1921 road map, it's difficult to understand why a vehicle traveling from Marcellus to Manlius would go through Kirkville. The reason offered — that a bridge was out on the more popular and direct route — tells only half the story.

The truck driver, Zeofil (or Teofil) Czarnecki, also chose a relatively flat route. The basketball team and the principal likely took a hilly route, perhaps one that is now New York State highways 175 and 173. Carrying 42 people on the bed of a truck that offered little protection, save for open-faced side and rear panels, was a risky thing under any circumstances; to do it more than 30 miles each way on an up and down route would have taxed the vehicle and endangered the passengers. After all, the truck had been set up like a hayride, and hayrides seldom venture onto state highways.

The route chosen was longer than 30 miles, but flatter and considered safer. Czarnecki had no reason to worry about a railroad crossing supposedly designed with a warning alarm, red lights and gates that were lowered for approaching trains. Only after the accident would people call the coroner to report they had had narrow escapes at this crossing under similar circumstances — i.e., the gates remained raised even as a train approached.