The wreck of old 54 (Part II)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 21, 2015

As the two derricks picked up the wrecked locomotives and cars from the October 12, 1955, head-on collision three miles from my home in northeast Texas (go here to read the first installment of “The Wreck of Old 54”), they were loaded onto flat cars and stowed on the short siding in Sulphur Springs. That weekend, I stood beside the depot and watched as Kansas City Southern Lines GP7 locomotive 151 towed a lengthy hospital train toward Shreveport. The shoofly at the accident site was now out of service, The Interstate Commerce Commission issued a report on the collision in December that described why the two trains collided. Here is what I learned from that report and subsequently.

There was nothing unusual that evening about the two trains. Train 54 left Shreveport each evening about 8 p.m., headed for Dallas. In Greenville, 35 miles west of Sulphur Springs, a fresh crew took 54’s train to East Dallas Yard of the Santa Fe Railway and returned with train 53 for Shreveport. Likewise, an unscheduled through freight operated in each direction, the southbound train (geographical direction east) leaving Greenville about midnight. Train 54 and the extra typically met at the long sidings at Brasher (7 miles west of Sulphur Springs) or Como (9 miles east).

Train 54 on the evening of October 11 paused at Hughes Springs to set off and pick up cars. There it got train order 96, issued at 9:40 p.m., which read: “No 54 Eng 73 meet Extra 76 South at Como.” The rear brakeman on 54, William Daum, recollected in a 2011 statement that his conductor, Larry Schott, thought Brashear would make a better meeting place and asked the Hughes Springs telegrapher, J.F. Leatherman, to so inform the train dispatcher, G. H. Bland.

Bland must have accepted Schott’s advice, because at 10:09 p.m. he issued order 97: “No 54 Eng 73 meet Extra 76 South at Brashear instead of Como.”

These two orders, read together, were perfectly straightforward. The second order superseded the first and set Brashear as the new meeting point. Both orders were delivered to train 54 under a new clearance card, and the train left Hughes Springs at 10:25 p.m. Daum, who was the rear brakeman, rode the head end as far as Winnsboro, Tex., 23 miles east of Sulphur Springs, where the train set out a car of merchandise. He made a roll-by inspection as 54 eased out of Winnsboro and reboarded the caboose.

Daum never felt the emergency brakes at 12:40 a.m. before the train suddenly stopped. He and Schott very soon could see a fire about a mile ahead of the caboose and deduced, correctly, that they collided with Extra 76 South (southward trains by timetable direction actually headed east on this subdivision). Daum got fusees and torpedoes and went back to protect the rear of the train, while Schott headed toward the front of the train, through “mire and muck,” negotiating four bridges along the way.

Finally reaching the wreckage, Schott learned that his engineer, fireman and head brakeman had jumped from unit 73, with fireman J.C. Mullins being the only one seriously injured, due to his head striking a culvert. The engineer of Extra 76 South, “Flappy” Long, was found by Texas Power & Light employee Bill Saxe, who lived nearby, entangled in the stirrup of the ladder from locomotive 76’s cab; his elbow and shoulder were fractured.

Why did Extra 76 South go past the new meeting point at Brashear? Because it never received order 97! (See the undelivered order above) Here is what happened: Dispatcher Bland issued order 95 to the telegraphers at Hughes Springs and Hunt Yard in Greenville that created a work extra in the vicinity of Hughes Springs. The work extra tied up, so Bland issued order 106 addressed to the telegraphers at those two stations that read: “Order No. 95 is annulled.”
I have seen those words in the dispatcher’s train order book, given to me many years later, and I’ve seen a copy of the order as copied by the operator in Hughes Springs. But the telegrapher at Hunt Yard wrote as follows: “Order No 97 is annulled” (That order as copied by the operator at Hunt Yard in Greenville is also reproduced above). Both operators repeated the order back to Bland as copied, and neither Bland nor the Hughes Springs operator caught the error. And when the operator read to Bland the train orders to be delivered to Extra 76 South, Bland did not notice that order 97 was not among them but order 95 was.

The story I heard at the time is that Bland retired the day of the accident. In any case, a new employee timetable issued the following April did not include his name among the dispatchers. Brakeman Daum in 2011 was of the belief that firemen Mullins eventually died of his injuries, although I had never heard that. All eight F units derailed in the accident returned to service.

Much is known, in other words, about this accident and its aftermath. The ICC said it was caused by an overlap of operating authority between the two trains. What we’ll never know is why a train order was mistakenly copied and the error never discovered until it was too late, given all the safeguards against just such a thing occurring.—Fred W. Frailey

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