Locals tell story of the Red Arrow 70 years after railroad disaster

Cranes sift through the wreckage of Pennsylvania Railroad train No. 68, known as the Red Arrow, which derailed on Feb. 18, 1947. Two dozen passengers died and another 138 suffered injuries in the crash in the area known as Gum Tree Hollow.

Behind schedule early on a foggy morning, Pennsylvania Railroad train No. 68 — the Red Arrow — sped east on a slope of the Allegheny Front as it approached the Bennington Curve. Catastrophe followed.

The Red Arrow’s speed proved too great about 3:21 a.m. Feb. 18, 1947, when it derailed from the tracks and crashed down an embankment and into an area called Gum Tree Hollow.

“People started screaming, and I braced myself against the window sill,” Chester J. Bialecki, a 17-year-old sailor, told the Mirror, recalling his experience from a hospital in the hours after the crash.

Two dozen passengers were killed, and more than 100 were injured. Now, 70 years later, local historians and railroad enthusiasts remember the fatal trip, which ended with crushed train cars and mangled tracks.

“Everyone’s lives were impacted by this,” said Joe DeFrancesco, Blair County Historical Society’s executive director. “Even people today who were children at the time, they remember.”

The Red Arrow was a passenger train traveling east from Detroit to New York.

Postal workers, families, performance troupes and military personnel were aboard.

“They were servicemen, returning servicemen from the war,” DeFrancesco said. “There were local people from Altoona and Hollidaysburg.”

As the train approached the sharp curve, it passed along a section of track with a steep downward grade, he said.

Today, that section of track is often called “the slide,” said David Seidel, a local railroad enthusiast.

Seidel was only 9 years old at the time of the crash, but he still remembers hearing the news.

“I understood it was a big deal at the time,” he said.

An after-crash report said the Red Arrow was about an hour and 3 minutes late as it passed Gallitzin.

Experts estimated the train was traveling quickly around the curve between Gallitzin and Altoona, which had a limit of 30 mph.

“They were behind schedule, and it was a common practice to make up time on the straight portions of track,” DeFrancesco said.

A week after the crash, M. N. Neff, a fireman who was on a freight train stopped near the crash scene, described the Red Arrow’s approach.

“Oh boy! Look at the fellow going,” Neff said, according to a 1947 Mirror report, recounting his testimony to investigators of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Excessive speed blamed

The cause of the derailment, according to an ICC investigation report, was “excessive speed.” The Red Arrow, at the time of the accident, was traveling in excess of 65 miles per hour, the report said.

The Interstate Commerce Commission was a federal agency tasked with regulating railroads. It was abolished in the mid-1990s, but its reports are available via a U.S. Department of Transportation database.

The Red Arrow was a 14-car train, and of those cars, the first 11 were fully or partially derailed in the crash, the report said. The passenger train was powered by two K-4 engines — No. 422 and 3771. The first engine overturned to the left and stopped on its left side about 405 feet to the east of the derailment site, according to the ICC.

“The cab was demolished, steam pipes within the cab were broken and the left side of the engine was badly damaged,” the report said.

Descriptions of the wreckage did not stop there, as the report goes on to detail damages to the remaining Red Arrow cars.

The train’s operators were among those killed in the crash.

“The fireman of the first engine and the engineer and fireman of the second engine were killed,” the report said. “The engineer of the first engine and the front brakeman were

injured.”

All told, 24 people were killed and 138 were injured, the report said. The section of railroad where the train derailed is known as the Mainline, and it was the site of four parallel tracks.

Three of four tracks damaged

The Red Arrow was traveling on the second track at the time of its derailment. It then traveled across the third and fourth tracks, also damaging them, railroad enthusiast Gary Clare said.

Earlier this week, Clare displayed photographs of the aftermath, which showed widespread damage, including train cars toppled on top of one another.

Among the wreckage was a mail car, Clare said.

“All of the thousands of pieces of mail were scattered over the hillside,” he said.

Because of the mountainous location, it could not be accessed by ambulance, Clare said.

Instead, local doctors and nurses piled onto trains that traveled along the single undamaged track to the crash site, DeFrancesco said.

“Altoona Hospital and Mercy Hospital enlisted technicians and nurses to the site, and they paged Altoona doctors to come, as well,” he said.

In addition to the local hospitals, injured passengers were taken to impromptu emergency centers, DeFrancesco said.

They were set up in various areas, including the former Penn Alto Hotel and United Service Organization’s Canteen, he said.

Many did not make it that far before they died of serious injuries, experts said.

“It was not a very pretty death,” DeFrancesco said.

There has been some debate about what circumstances led to the crash, DeFrancesco said, explaining both operator error and equipment malfunctions have been blamed.

Weather also could have been a factor, as the ICC describes the day as “hazy.”

“The weather conditions could have affected the judgment of the crew,” DeFrancesco said.

Regardless of the cause, it’s not hard to imagine how the train achieved such an excessive speed, he said.

“The weight of that train and the momentum could have pushed it to those speeds very quickly,” DeFrancesco said.

Within a few days, the tracks were repaired, but debris was still scattered across the nearby hillside, said Seidel, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for a brief time.

Cranes lifted debris

Clare’s photos showed rail-bound cranes that were used to lift large pieces of wreckage.

“It wasn’t until three or four months after the accident happened that the official word came down absolving any of the crew,” Seidel said. “It wasn’t human error or anything like that.”

The Red Arrow’s crash wasn’t the last on that stretch of tracks. There was a second accident in the area only 10 days later, Clare said.

About 4 a.m. Feb. 28, 1947, the rear Pullman car — called the Cascade Mirage — uncoupled from a train known as the Sunshine Special near Gallitzin, according to a 1947 Mirror report.

The car sped backward down the tracks, derailed and “smashed into an outcropping of rock” about a quarter mile away from the Bennington Curve.

“Among the first to reach the wreck were unidentified watchmen guarding wreckage of the Red Arrow, which plunged over the Bennington Curve last Tuesday,” the Mirror report said. “They estimated the runaway car was traveling about 50 mph when it passed them on the way down.”

The Sunshine Special was headed west from New York to Texas, and a man aboard the runaway car later recalled the moments before the accident.

“It was the longest five minutes of my life,” Harry Willis of New Jersey told the Mirror at that time.

One person died, and 12 were injured in the second crash.

The successive wrecks impacted the Pennsylvania Railroad greatly, Seidel said.

“These instances tarnished that reputation,” he said. “It tarnished the image and reception.”

And the crashes, especially the Red Arrow’s, have not been forgotten.

“The trauma still lives on today in people who remember it,” DeFrancesco said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.

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