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Friday, January 6, 2017

A Perfect Storm

 [Note: The Conductor of Train #412 was my great-great uncle, E. E. Hittle of Huron, South Dakota.  He was married to Maude Graves, sister of my great-grandmother Elvirta Knutz, and at this time lived in Huron, South Dakota.  As far as I know, he walked away from the crash without injuries.





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                Webster defines the term “Perfect Storm” as a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors.  And that is precisely what culminated on the morning of Sunday, April 25, 1937, when Chicago and North Western passenger Train #412 plowed into the rear of Train #504 just west of De Smet, South Dakota, killing one and injuring several others.


                It was described as a “freakish late-April storm” that rolled into the area on Saturday, April 24, bringing strong north winds of 60-65 mph.  Only an inch of snow was deposited in the city of Huron, but massive drifts high enough to cover the fence line could be found east of Huron between Iroquois and De Smet.  Highway 14 was quickly impassable, with dozens of cars stalled and abandoned near Manchester, as their inhabitants made their way into town to catch the eastbound train to their destinations.

Map of pertinent area in eastern South Dakota, courtesy of Google Maps.

                Late Saturday evening, Train #504 left the depot at Huron for its eastward run, hauling a passenger car plus five other cars, with a gas-electric motor coach that was hitching a ride, or “deadheading,” to Tracy, Minnesota, at the end.  All was uneventful but for a few small drifts until they were within three miles of De Smet, when the train met its match in snow and became stalled.  Conductor Arthur Howard, of Huron, and his Engineman Mr. Key, thought the train might have a better chance without the deadheading motor coach, so it was detached and they attempted to thrust the train through the deep snow, but this effort was unsuccessful.  The crew then attempted to get the detached motor car back to Manchester to summon help, but the high winds and heavy snow only allowed about 50 feet of movement before it, too, was stuck.  Engineman Key sent out the flagman to the rear of the train, and they made the decision to have Conductor Howard try to walk the three miles to De Smet for help and to notify the proper people of the stall.

                The Flagman Mr. McIntyre sprang into action to minimize a very dangerous situation.  This area of track was single-rail; trains were operated on a timetable, with train “orders” and a manual block-signal system during the day.  During other times, “time spacing rules” were in effect to prevent accidents.  Flagman McIntyre situated a red fusee (very similar to a flare) about 500 feet behind the train, and continued walking until he found another clear spot on the rail on which to put torpedoes to alert any oncoming trains.  Continuing, he put another two torpedoes down about 1/4 mile from the train, then went back to the train to warm up.  He went out a second time, this time 3/4 mile from the train.  Overnight, he made several trips back and forth, standing guard to get the attention of any approaching train, and returning to his train when his eyes and face were covered with the freezing heavy snow.  In the early morning hours, he and baggage man Fred Behrens, of Tracy, decided to try to get to a nearby farm house in hopes of being able to contact the depots in Huron and De Smet to let them know of their predicament, and bring back some food for the passengers, despite their conductor already being on the way to summon help.  In his absence, Flagman McIntyre enlisted Baggageman Venard to take his place as flagman.  Although Venard’s 16-hour “tour of duty” would soon be expiring, McIntyre did not consider it of importance during an emergency situation, and departed with Behrens. They were ultimately not successful in locating the farmhouse, and leaving Behrends behind, McIntyre proceeded to De Smet. 

                Meanwhile, Venard acted as flagman, but informed Conductor William Innes, who was in charge of the deadheaded motor car, that his 16 hours were nearly up, expiring at 7:40 a.m.  According to Venard, Innes replied that he would take over the flagging duties at that time.  When 7:40 rolled around, Venard came back to the train, and made a sign to Conductor Innes, who nodded back.  Venard took this as a sign that Innes would take over, and he proceeded to the mail/baggage car and went to sleep.

                Sharing responsibility with Innes for the deadheaded motor coach was Engineman Frank Carpenter, also of Tracy.  He and Conductor Innes alternated going to the engine for coal.  Carpenter was preparing for his turn and Innes went to the passenger compartment of the motor car, located at the rear, apparently having no knowledge that there was no longer anyone at all acting as flagman.


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Depot and Rail Yard of the Chicago and North Western Railroad at Huron

                Meanwhile, at the Huron Depot, the crew of passenger Train #412 was preparing for its run.  Dispatcher Kelley came on duty at 6:30 a.m., and discussed the situation with the night shift dispatcher, who informed him that all communication east of Huron was down.  However, he had no reason to believe that the previous nights’ train, #504, had not been successful in reaching its destination.  As Dispatcher Kelley was preparing to issue orders for the outgoing train, he was distracted by a train patron inquiring about shipping animals, and he inadvertently issued the conductor a clearance card reading “block clear” rather than issuing a caution order. 

                At 8:18 a.m., Conductor Hittle and crew left the depot 13 minutes behind schedule.  Engineman J. C. Shephard noted the severity of the storm, but the visibility was at least good enough to see the front of the engine, and the train had no trouble attaining its regular speed.  But all that changed as they went through Manchester; the snow on the tracks caused the train to lose speed, and Fireman Hoffman expected a stall, but Engineman Shephard was able to use more steam to get the speed back up and keep the train moving.  Their speed was up to about 20 mph, but visibility was so poor that the front of the engine was now a blur in the blizzard conditions.  


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             In De Smet, Train #504 Conductor Howard discovered that communication lines were down in the whole area.  He knew he would not be able to contact the depot in Huron, but was at least hoping to contact someone in Iroquois to warn of the stall.  He stayed in De Smet until 5 a.m., then headed back toward his train, but discovered the drifts had become 2-3’ deep and was forced to return to De Smet.  He was surprised shortly after that when his Flagman McIntyre showed up at the De Smet depot.  When Howard inquired who was doing the flagging, he was told that Venard was handling it.  They were in the train station when the mail clerk came over and told them that the unthinkable had happened.


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                There was nothing the crew of Train #412 could have done to stop the crash.  They heard no torpedoes, and saw neither fusees nor a flagman.  After the accident, Train #412’s Flagman Shanahan went to the rear of the train to flag, and found an unexploded torpedo about a half mile behind the train – his train had slid right over it.1  He walked the 6 miles back to Manchester, and his face became covered with ice in the nearly 3 hours it took to get there.

                The deadheading motor car with Conductor Innes and Engineman Carpenter was the first to be hit, and it was hit hard.  Made of steel, it was crushed like a piece of aluminum foil, “telescoping” it.  Conductor Innes was in the rear part of car, and was critically injured.  Engineman Carpenter, in the front part of the car, sustained a broken nose, numerous head lacerations, and bruises.  After the motor car was hit, it propelled into the main train, partially derailing it and causing minor injuries among the passengers.  Had the motor coach not been detached, the situation would have been much more serious than it already was.

                A plea was immediately made in the passenger car for anyone with any medical skill to help.  A young Huron College student, Paul Besselievre of Pierre, was traveling to Irwin, South Dakota to preach a Sunday sermon, and his scouting experience gave him some basic first aid skills.  A nurse, Miss Beulah Vostad of Rapid City, was also aboard.  Nurse Vostad attended to the more seriously injured Condcutor Innes while Besselievre cleaned and dressed Engineman Carpenter’s wounds, stating that the hardest part was keeping Mr. Carpenter still – he was compelled to go to the main train to see what he could do to be of service, despite his wounds and dazed condition.  Unfortunately there was not much that could be done for Condcutor Innes other than an injection of morphine to ease his pain.  He was talking coherently Sunday night, but took a turn for the worse and passed away the following day.

This was the Perfect Storm of conditions – snow, wind, lack of visibility, downed phone lines, and a number of critical human decisions that went wrong.  The investigation questioned why the flagman would leave his job, which was paramount to the safety of everyone on the train, to duplicate the efforts of his conductor.  His replacement went “off-duty” in an emergency situation.  The next replacement apparently did not know he was expected to act as flagman in addition to what he was already doing.   In a moment of distraction, the depot clerk did not caution the outgoing crew of a potential problem down the line.  These were all factors that came together resulting in a large amount of damage and most importantly, the loss of Conductor William Innes’ life.

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1Pg. 63 of Accident Bulletin, Issues 63-82, by United States Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Safety.
                “When a train is stopped by an accident, obstruction, or from other cause, the flagman must immediately go back with stop signals to stop any train moving in the same direction.  At a point one-third of a mile from the rear of his train, he must place one torpedo on the rail; he must then continue to go back at least one-half of a mile from the rear of his train, and place two torpedoes on the rail, 60 feet apart (two rail lengths), when he may return to a point one-third of a mile from the rear of his train, and he must remain there until recalled by the whistle of his engine; but if a passenger train is due within 10 minutes, he must remain until it arrives.  When he comes in he will remove the torpedo nearest to the train, but the two torpedoes must be left on the rail as a caution signal to any following train.  At night he will also leave a green fuse burning on the track.  If there is not a clear view for one-fourth mile to rear of train, the train must start before calling in the flagman, and move ahead at a speed of not less than 4 miles per hour until it reaches a point where the view is unobstructed for one-fourth mile in its rear.”

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