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A 1962 train crash that killed 19 remains the worst Philadelphia sports tragedy

By FRANK FITZPATRICK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: January 17, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Surrounded by thick clots of baseball fans on a midsummer Saturday night, the 14 adjoining rows of empty seats along Connie Mack Stadium’s first-base line stuck out like a missing front tooth.

Many of the 12,450 spectators at the Phillies’ 9-2 win over Pittsburgh that July 28, 1962, must have wondered why, when all the nearby sections were filled, this premium location was a ghost town.

They would get their answer soon enough, on car radios as they headed home or the following morning in the stories splashed across Page 1 of the Sunday Inquirer.

At 5:07 p.m., four cars of Pennsylvania Railroad’s Extra 4878 East, a train carrying Central Pennsylvanians to that Phillies game, had derailed 3.7 miles east of Harrisburg. Three of the cars somersaulted down a 30-foot embankment and plunged into the Susquehanna River.

The wreck’s statistics were gruesome: 19 dead, 105 injured. A 65-year-old widow from Darby was among the deceased, as were four members of one family, including a 10-year-old boy en route to his first big-league game.

The excursion’s name, the “Phillies Special,” explained why when first responders arrived at the scene, they saw several red baseball caps drifting in the Susquehanna’s shallow current like roses tossed onto a fresh grave.

To 2020 ears, the “Phillies Special” must have an odd resonance, its name so like that of the now-famous goal-line play in the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII victory, its end result so catastrophically opposite.

Curiously, those two events, separated by almost 56 years but linked by nearly identical appellations, are the alpha and omega of Philadelphia sports, one a reminder of an ultimate triumph, the other of unspeakable tragedy.

The “Philly Special,” instantly memorialized by a Lincoln Financial Field statue, is a fresh and vivid recollection, a memory that whenever activated can summon again this city’s post-Super Bowl euphoria.

Meanwhile, the “Phillies Special” has been virtually forgotten. There is no memorial to its victims. Each July, its anniversary passes unnoted. And unlike such sports-related disasters as the Hillsborough soccer stampede or the plane crash that claimed Marshall’s football team, it’s never been the subject of a book or documentary.

Other than some old black-and-white photos and yellowed newspaper clippings, the only links to this deadliest event in Philadelphia sports history are the handful of old men and women who survived and the artifacts they still cherish like sacred relics.

John V. Miller, 79, a retired college archivist living in Akron, Ohio, was a 22-year-old University of Delaware graduate student who broke his back in the crash. He’s blocked many of the wreck’s details, wouldn’t ride another train for decades, and has flown just twice in his long life.

“I was traumatized,” Miller said recently, “and to some degree I still am.”

But Miller never discarded the hip-to-shoulder body cast he wore for five months, a plaster antique that’s accompanied him on all his relocations over the subsequent decades.

A sports fan then and now, he has also kept a get-well card signed by all the 1962 Philadelphia Eagles.

“Dear John, such a tragic accident,” Chuck Bednarik wrote on it. “Here’s hoping your spirits and morale stay high. God bless you.”

The card came in response to a letter written by his younger brother, who also was on the train but was less seriously hurt.

“Chuck Bednarik was my biggest sports hero,” said Harry Miller, 74, a retired magazine ad representative now living in Lexington, Ky. “I was beside myself. I didn’t know what to do. I knew the Eagles trained in Hershey and God only knows what possessed me to write and tell them about my brother. I don’t know what I expected, but that card, it still makes me emotional.”

Among the first medical personnel at the crash site was a young intern from Harrisburg Hospital. H. Richard Ward, educated at Hahnemann Medical College, died in 2017, but his widow has kept the commendation he received from Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence.

“He had no idea what to expect until he got there,” said Donna Ward of Mifflinburg. “It was a horrific scene. At one point, he told me, he reached for a hand and there was nothing at the other end of it.”

In that tail end of the railroad era — the Pennsylvania Railroad would merge in 1968, file for bankruptcy in 1970 — train excursions to sporting events weren’t unusual. Neither were accidents.

Just 18 months earlier, six people died when a PRR train carrying Philadelphia-area horse-racing fans to Bowie Race Track derailed three miles from the Maryland facility. Investigators blamed excessive speed.

The “Phillies Special” was a boon for a seventh-place team that drew just 762,034 fans that season. At the Phils’ July 22 game with Milwaukee, for example, it brought 10% of the 11,010 spectators to Connie Mack.

“They considered it an essential part of the business,” said Joanne Hudson, a Phillies group-sales representative whose father, Tom, held a similar position with the team and was aboard the ill-fated train.

On July 28, at Harrisburg’s Central Station, 140 people boarded the last two cars of the “Phillies Special” — a diner and eight passenger compartments hauled by an electric engine.

According to the team, 95 of them were bound for Saturday night’s game between the Phillies and third-place Pittsburgh. They included a Little League team and several families. John Miller, married six weeks earlier, was acting as a chaperone for his brother and two friends.

“Johnny was my hero so I’ve always felt guilty,” said Harry Miller, then 17. “The only reason he went was because our mother didn’t want me, her baby boy, alone in the wild streets of Philadelphia.”

As an undergrad at Lancaster’s Franklin and Marshall, where he’d captained the track and cross-country teams, John Miller had commuted often by train between there and his home in Dillsburg, 13 miles south of the state capital. A seat on the more popular side of the car, the one that offered Susquehanna River views, didn’t interest him. That indifference likely saved his life.

Before the train departed, he and his companions chatted with a family sitting across the aisle — Ruth Crissman, the 39-year-old wife of a railroad machinist from Millersburg; her children, 16-year-old Rose and 10-year-old Nick; and her sister, Jane Lauver, 36.

At 5:02 p.m., the “Phillies Special” departed. Hundreds more waited to fill its empty cars in Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Coatesville. For one price — likely less than $5 — purchasers got round-trip rail fare, a ticket to the game, and, in some instances, a box lunch of a sandwich, apple, and TastyKake.

As conductor Ira Markley collected fares, the Phillies’ Hudson followed, passing out game tickets. It was 5:07 when the train, moving at between 63 and 72 m.p.h., rounded a curve in Steelton, just behind the hulking Bethlehem Steel plant.

There, the previous week, 30 feet above the river’s north shore, PRR crews had rehabilitated a section of Track 1. They’d finished Friday and the track was deemed safe for traffic. By late Saturday afternoon, 19 trains had crossed it without incident.

But, as an Interstate Commerce Commission investigation later determined, Track 1 had been “insufficiently ballasted.” The ICC found that in the repaired area, there were 23 bent spikes, 706 spikes not fully secured, and 870 loose tie plates. In Saturday’s 90-degree heat, the insecure rail shifted out of alignment.

Approaching that stretch, J.F. Shue, a 21-year PRR engineer, “saw the track weave.” The brakes were applied, but it was too late. According to the report, the back four cars of the whiplashing train broke loose.

“I knew it was going to be terrible back there,” Shue told reporters.

David Wilbert, a smelter foreman, had been working at the rear of the plant when he witnessed the derailment.

“I saw the engine and five cars go by, but the sixth caught a pole,” he told The Inquirer. “It kept on going and then hit a second and third pole before it fishtailed and went down the embankment.”

At least two of the breakaway cars struck telephone poles, toppling live wires that ignited brush on the hillside. Three cars tumbled into the Susquehanna.

“We rolled over and over,” recalled Harry Miller. “The seats came loose. I could hear the people we’d been talking to across from us screaming. The survival instinct kicked in. I knew I had to get out from beneath whatever was on top of me. Bodies, I think. Then I remember crawling. We ended up in a little bit of water. Fortunately, the Susquehanna is a mile wide and a yard deep so we weren’t totally submerged.”

John Miller’s foot caught beneath a dislodged seat. As his shoe ripped off, his body contorted unnaturally, breaking several vertebrae.

“I don’t remember what the inside of that car looked like,” he said. “I crawled the short distance from our seats to the exit door. Then I climbed up onto the side of the car. I think I’ve seen a picture of us sitting up there. On the shore, I saw at least one dead.”

Other plant workers and motorists who’d seen the wreck hurried down the hillside. What they encountered there, some would say, made them think they’d stumbled into hell.

“One car looked as if it had been squeezed by the hand of a giant,” noted The Inquirer. “The roof of another was ripped from end to end. A torn up rail ran through one car like a skewer.”

The three cars were upturned in three feet of water. A 1,700-foot length of track had been dislodged. Smoke from the brush fire clouded the humid air. There were bodies on the riverbank. Trapped passengers cried out as they struggled to break free from bloody tangles of steel, glass, and flesh.

The early arrivers at the site 103 miles west of Philadelphia soon were joined by fire, police, medical, and military personnel. They came on foot, in cars, trucks, boats, and even in helicopters from nearby Olmstead Air Force Base. Police estimated that by Saturday night there were close to 1,000 rescuers.

Ward, who had graduated from Hahnemann a month before and had been trained as a medic for the Korean War, arrived by ambulance. His medical bag stuffed with painkillers, he entered a car. Some victims were underwater. More might have been, he knew, had the river not been diminished by a summerlong drought.

Trailed by a Steelton priest administering last rites, the young doctor moved swiftly, delivering morphine, bandaging wounds, identifying the dead.

“They were in shock,” Ward said of the injured. “Their eyes did not see. They were like from another world.”

Women and children screamed. One 9-year-old wailed beside his dead grandmother. Some victims lost limbs. Others were decapitated. According to State Police Capt. Richard Gray, fingerprints had to be used for one identification, the contents of a purse for another.

“My husband said it was horrific, far worse than people thought,” Ward’s widow said.

All 27 men in a Navy drill team joined the efforts. They’d seen the crash from a bus that was returning them to Bainbridge (Md.) Naval Base after a performance nearby. One, Seaman Apprentice Michael Pierce, told the Associated Press he freed an 8-year-old boy who had been trapped on top of his dead father.

“I started talking baseball to him, trying to quiet him,” said Pierce. “There was mass confusion.”

Divers with acetylene torches worked underwater. Rescuers shattered windows, removing the dead and living. A line of ambulances that stretched from the riverside into Steelton carried the most seriously hurt to Harrisburg and Harrisburg Polyclinic Hospitals. Steelton’s Baldwin Fire. Co. became a makeshift morgue.

Dazed, Miller stood atop the car absorbing the grim reality. He didn’t yet know the four passengers he’d talked with across the aisle were dead. The pain in his back, suppressed by shock, flared.

“When we got up there, Johnny told the conductor he thought he’d broken his back,” Harry Miller recalled. “And the conductor said, `You couldn’t have if you crawled that far and made it up here.’ ”

Among the physicians and nurses who rushed there was the Millers’ father, a general practitioner. He heard the news at the grocery store where Harry worked part-time.

“Because he was an M.D, they let him go down to the crash site,” said John Miller. “But by that time, all four of us were gone. He went home and told my mother to prepare for the worst. He’d seen the cars.”

Donna Ward was shopping in Harrisburg when she learned of the wreck. She hurried home and turned on the TV.

“The first image I saw was Dick on top of a train car, lifting a patient on a gurney into a helicopter,” she said. “There were massive injuries and they worked until they were in a total state of exhaustion.”

Back at 21st and Lehigh in North Philadelphia, Phils pitcher Art Mahaffey, who threw a four-hitter, hadn’t yet taken the mound for the 8:05 p.m. game when an injured Hudson phoned his boss, Frank Powell, director of sales, from a Harrisburg hospital.

“At first we didn’t know the seriousness,” Powell told The Inquirer. “By the time we learned, there were more than 12,000 fans at the game and we didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Fans waiting for the train in Lancaster and elsewhere eventually were informed. Some hopped into cars and drove to Connie Mack. Because tickets never had been distributed, all who identified themselves as “Phillies Special” passengers were admitted without them.

The only Philadelphia-area victim hadn’t been bound for the ballgame. Mary Hersh, a 65-year-old Darby resident, was visiting friends in Harrisburg. She was the widow of a longtime PRR employee.

On Sunday at Connie Mack, a crowd of 8,502 honored the victims with a moment of pregame silence. The Phillies postponed a ceremony to commemorate Johnny Callison’s historic base hit in the first satellite-transmitted game a week earlier.

Within a few days, the “Phillies Special” resumed service and PRR trains were again whizzing past the Steelton mill. Funerals were conducted. Wounds healed. Scars remained.

Tom Hudson worked for the Phillies another three decades but seldom talked about the horrors he witnessed on that partially submerged rail car.

“There were some gory details and mentally it got to him,” said his son, Tom. “He suffered nightmares. I’m sure he had what they’d now call PTSD.”

Ward would practice medicine in Mifflinburg for the next 37 years, delivering more than 2,200 babies. The hospital where he worked will soon dedicate a healing garden in his name.

John Miller was discharged from the hospital a week after the crash, but only because his physician father, whose office was in their house, promised to care for him. He returned to Delaware, earned his master’s, studied for a time at Penn, lived briefly in Boston, and 48 years ago took a job at the University of Akron.

His brother, meanwhile, spent his career in Lexington at Blood Horse magazine. Retired now, he and his wife have learned to love train travel. They soon will take a trip out west.

“Hopefully we won’t get derailed,” he said seriously. “But what are the chances of that? One in a million? I’ve been through that. I survived. I’m just the luckiest guy in the world."

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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