Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1950
At least 33 persons died and 29 were injured, four critically, last night in the flaming crash of a crowded street car and a double trailer gasoline truck near 63d and State sts.
Thousands of gallons of gasoline poured out of the torn sides of the trailers, engulfing the street car in flames and setting fire to several automobiles and eight buildings.
Big tarpaulin covers bodies of 33 victims of street car-truck crash at 63d and State sts. as priest performs rites.
Fear Still More Dead
Officials feared that other bodies would be found in the ruins of five buildings destroyed between 6239 and s247 State st.
Many persons were eating when the crash and fire occurred at 6:30 p.m. and it was believed some may have been trapped in their apartments.
Thirty-two of the victims died in the street car, one of the new type operating on the Broadway line. They died in a mass crushed near the exits, and most of them were burned beyond recognition.
One tentative identification was made immediately. A charred gas bill found in the pockets of one man identified as John E. Storey, 8318 Perry ave.
Another victim was believed to to have been Paul Manning, 42, of 2919 Berwyn av., motorman of the car. He had not appeared at any of the hospitals hours after the tragedy.
William Lidell, 29, of 1920 Foster av., conductor of the car, escaped with other passengers by climbing through a rear window.
Police were told that the truck, loaded with between 7,000 and 8,000 gallons of gasoline, was driven by Mel Wilson, an employe of the Sprout & Davis company, 2500 Indianapolis blvd., Whiting, Ind., which owned the truck.
Driver Dies in Truck Cab
Wilson died in the cab of his truck jacknifed in the north-bound traffic lane, about 200 feet north of 63d st. The street car came to rest diagonally across the street.
The crash occurred as the street car, moving south in State st., swung suddenly to the left to enter a switch back siding in a vacant lot on the east side of State st. A flooded underpass a block south had made it necessary to reroute the the car.
Witnesses said the car struck the side of the northbound gasoline truck spilling and spraying its contents over the street car and into the street. Occupants of automobiles which were set afire escaped safely.
Flag Warning Unheeded
CTA officials were told that the street car was moving rapidly when it entered the switch and swung to the left. A flagman on duty there reported that he waved his flag frantically at the motorman to warn him that the switch was “open” for a turn at that point. The car continued on, he said.
Bodies of the victims were placed temporarily on the west sidewalk of State st. when firemen were able to enter the charred street car after playing streams of water on it for almost an hour.
Later the bodies were removed to the county morgue where the difficult task of identification was begun. Because of the charred condition of the victims and destruction of wallets and identifying papers, it was feared it might take weeks before identification is completed.
Await “Missing” Reports
In some cases, police said, identification may be made after relatives make “missing” reports to police.
The first policemen and firemen to reach the scene put into effect emergency plan No. 4 which brought all available police and fire ambulances and rescue squads to the scene.
Fire Marshall Anthony J. Mulaney estimated the property damage in excess of $150,000. He said the heat5 of the flames was so intense that it cracked bricks and concrete in the street pavement.
Two parked autos and building at 6251 State st. after firemen had controlled the blaze last night.
Fight Blaze for Hours
Hours after the flames in the street car had been extinguished, firemen still were battling the flames in the buildings. Walls collapsed in several of them.
After the bodies had been removed from the street car, police pulled the trolley car away from the position in which it had burned. The floor had burned thru and a pile of debris was found in the street.
It contained burned bits of clothing, shoes, and other items, including parts of toys. Police began sifting thru the mass for clews to the identities of some of the dead.
15,000 Flock to Scene
As word of the tragedy spread, thousands of persons hurrie to the scene, some in the belief that relatives may have perished in the car. Police estimated that at times more than 15,000 persons looked on the accident scene from streets, windows of buildings, and a nearby railroad right of way.
As the victims’ bodies lay in a charred mass under the tarpaulins on the sidewalks, priests administered last rites of the church to the group. Later Msger. William J. Gorman, fire department chaplain, visited the injured in several hospitals.
Fifteen Red Cross workers helped at the scene from disaster headquarters at 6209 State st., under the direction of Jack Carnahan, Red Cross aid. Carnahan estimated that 150 persons were made homeless by the fire.
One phase of the investigation will seek to establish whether there was malfunctioning of the street car doors when the passengers tried to escape.
Conflicting Stories Told.
Survivors, suffering from shock, told conflicting stories about difficulties in opening of the doors. Several said they had to kick out the glass in order to open the doors, but Beverly Clark, 14, of 6143 Wentworth av., said the doors swung open when she pulled an emergency cord, breaking her finger. She was the first to leave the car.
Mayor Kennelly, Coroner Brodie, Police Commissioner Prendergast and representatives of the state’s attorney’s office appeared at the scene. Brodie set an inquest for June 2 in the county morgue. He said he will seek to impanel a jury of transportation and accident prevention experts to investigate the disaster.
An investigation was launched last night by the CTA on orders of Walter J. McCarter, CTA general manager. Taking part were T. B. O’Connor, assistant superintendent of transportation for the CTA, and several transportation supervisors.
View of State st. just north of 63d st., where street car and gasoline tank truck collided in fiery crash that took 32 lives. Repair crews were restoring utilities services disrupted by fire. Six inquiries opened yesterday.
Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1950
Six separate probes were under way yesterday into the circumstances of the collision Thursday of a crowded street car with a gasoline trailer tank truck that cost 32 lives, sent 30 persons to hospitals, and destroyed five buildings.
Investigation by the police department was started within a few minutes after blazing gasoline turned the accident area into an inferno.
Trolley Conductor Arrested
The trolley conductor, William C. Liddell, 29, Negro, of 1920 Foster st., Evanston, who disappeared after the crash and had been sought thruout Thursday night, was arrested yesterday. Chief Michael Ahern of the traffic division charged Liddell with leaving the scene of an accident. Liddell will be arraigned in Auto Safety court Friday.
Coroner A. L. Brody conducted a brief preliminary hearing and then adjourned the inquest until June 1. He said at that time he will impanel a blue ribbon jury that will include experts on traffic, explosions, and other factors in the tragedy.
Brodie promised a “full fledged investigation” and said he would subpoena “anybody and everybody” who can hel in the investigation.
Mayor Calls for Full Report
Mayor Kennelly, who visited the scene of the accident Thursday night, ordered William H. Sexton, assistant corporation counsel, to compile a report on the disaster and impowered him to call any experts needed and to make recommendations that would prevent repetition of such a tragedy.
Conductor Liddell appeared at the CTA offices yesterday morning after spending the night with friends. Under instructions of Ralph Budd, CTA chairman, Liddell gave reporters an account of his part in the tragedy.
Liddell, still nervous from his experience, said the first thing he realized after the impact of the street car and the truck was that he was on the floor.
Conductor tells Story
There were flames in front iof the car and people were rushing to the rear. I set the rear door to open so that people could get out but they piled up there.
I pleaded with them to stand back. Then I was sped along with the crowd. They were panicked. I just couldn’t open the door. I was carried out thru the rear window. I don’t know how it was opened.
Charles G. Kleim, 44, of 1019 W. 78th st., flagman at the switch where the crash occurred, said:
About two minutes after 6:30 I saw the southbound car about two blocks away. I started waving when the car was about a block away, but it kept on coming. Then I really began waving. I jumped back. I saw it coming. The car was going perhaps 30 miles an hour, I can’t judge for sure.
Driven Away by Flames
Kleim said he ran away a few feet and heard the “poof” of the igniting gasoline. He rushed to the rear of the car and helped passengers out until the flames drove him away.
Budd and other CTA officials said they believed Kleim’s estimate of the car’s speed may be “exaggerated,” since the car would have been derailed at that speed.
Bud agreed that statements indicated that the motorman, Paul J. Manning, 43, of 2919 W. Berwyn av., who perished in the fire, apparently was going too fast.
Budd explained that while Manning was involved in 10 accident reports in the last two years, that in no more than one of these was he reported to blame.
Sees Passengers Flee Car
George Hartwig, 31, of 4364 Montrose av., motorman of another street car, said he was about 125 feet away when he saw the street car turn and strike the truck.
It hit the gas truck at the rear of the cab. I saw the trucker fighting to get out. I saw several men and women crawl out the back of the car. Flaming gasoline was rolling down the street so I got my passengers out of my car.
By late afternoon 30 of the 32 bodies carried to the county morgue had been identified. Among them was that of Motorman Manning, identified by his brother-in-law, Lee R. Medley, and by a wedding ring he had worn for 20 years. eighteen of the 30 persons injured were still in hospitals.
Chief Deputy Coroner Jack Prybylinski explained why the death toll, originally set at 33, was reduced to 32. He said that one slab number listed at the county morgue was that of a number of human bones but closer examination revealed they were parts of other victims and noit a separate individual.
Identified Trucker’s Body
Among bodies identified earlier was that of the truck driver, Mel Wilson, an employe of Sprout & Davis, Inc., of Whiting. C. R. Davis, president, said Wilson had been one of the company’s best drivers with a perfect safety record.
The National Safety council said the death toll is the largest ever to result from a motor vehicle collision. The previous high total was 29 killed in a 1940 truck-train collision in Texas.
Questioned as to why firemen had not used chemicals in fighting the gasoline flames, John J. Haberkorn, first deputy chief fire marshal, explained that the intensity of the gasoline blaze was so brief that it was useless to order chemical equipment from one of the two stations at which it is kept, the nearest at 43d and Paulina sts.
Haberkorn said the gasoline flames that continued were fought effectively by “fog mantles,” a special nozzle developed by the Chicago department which turns water into fog and smothers gasoline flames as effectively as foam.
Admit Doors Were Blocked
Stanley D. Forsythe, CTA traffic engineer, admitted that the front and rear doors of the street car could only be opened by the motorman or conductor, but explained that it is a “calculated risk” which he said was preferred to the danger of having passengers falling out of moving vehicles or by being given too much access to operating the doors.
Only the center door has an emergency handle for passengers, Forsythe said.
Budd said that it was his belief in this accident that safety devices would have been of little use because of the rapid spread of the flames.
The day after the street car crash, only brick walls remained of the five buildings burned.
Exit Standards Cited
However, in Boston, the National Fire Protection association, thru its general manager, Percy Bugbee, issued a statement stating that if “the doors of the street car were of the type that could not be opened quickly in an emergency, this was an obvious contributing factor, in the distressing loss of life.” Bugbee explained that bthe association’s standards specify “that emergency exits should be arranged so there will be an alternate path of escape if fire blocks one exit, a principle that applies to trolley cars as well as buildings.”
Thomas Garry, superintendent of sewers, denied the contention that the flooded subway south of the crash was to blame. “If ordinary precautions had been taken the tragedy would never have happened,” Garry said. He explained the sewer handling this subway was 60 years old and that plans were now on the drawing board for a new subway which is estimated to cost $2,700,000.
Ward Hanigan, superintendent of electricity, said about 500 feet of fire alarm and electric light cables had been destroyed with a total damage of $5,000. These services were restored by yesterday afternoon.
Lloyd M. Johnson, superintendent of streets, said inspection showed damage to pavements could be remedied by patching.
Roy T. Christiansen, building commissioner, said the seven buildings damaged in the fire had been inspected and were found mainly in safe condition. Owners were notified to remove dangerous walls and sections of and the Safeway Wrecking company began work demolishing some of these yesterday afternoon.
Cab of Sprout & Davis gasoline truck hit by street car, a week later.
The Car No 7078.