Excerpts from The Wreck of the Red Arrow

The Wreck of the Red Arrow
The Wreck of the Red Arrow: An American Train Tragedy
“Just after 3 am on February 18, 1947, a crack passenger train of the Pennsylvania Railroad pierced the fog and frigid air in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.”

Chapter One

Just after 3 am on February 18, 1947, a Tuesday, a crack passenger train pierced the fog and frigid air in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania. Train 68, the Red Arrow, en route to New York City from Detroit, was one of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s prestigious “Blue Ribbon flyers,” whose record of personal service and punctuality had earned the company the coveted (and self-proclaimed) accolade, “The Standard Railroad of the World.”

That night, though, Train 68’s enviable reputation for timeliness was endangered. On an almost inaccessible ridge at the summit of the Alleghenies near the notorious Bennington Curve, the Red Arrow was an hour late.

The day before, the train had left Detroit’s Fort Street Union Station at 5:20 pm as it did every evening for a fifteen-hour trip to Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Two hundred seventy-eight people were aboard: 238 passengers; twenty-three porters, waiters, and chefs; ten clerks of the United States Railway Mail Service; two enginemen and two firemen; and a flagman, a brakeman, and a conductor.

A pair of steam locomotives led the train, with Altoonan Michael S. Billig, fifty-three, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the Pennsylvania Railroad, at the throttle of the first engine. John M. Parascak, twenty-eight, of Bellwood, five miles north of Altoona, was Billig’s fireman. Parascak managed the automatic stoker, which fed coal to the locomotive’s firebox, and the injectors, which delivered water to the boiler to produce the steam that powered the engine. Michael E. McArdle, sixty-six, of Scottdale in Westmoreland County, was engineman of the second locomotive and a forty-seven-year veteran of the Pennsylvania Railroad, with thirty-five years at the controls. Ralph K. Henry, twenty-eight, of Derry, also in Westmoreland County, was McArdle’s fireman. Trainmen were Flagman Joel Bowers, fifty-one, of Altoona; Brakeman Ray Newhouse, forty-eight, of Johnstown; and Conductor G.R. (George Raymond) Hershberger, fifty-two, of Altoona. The operators of the Red Arrow were a seasoned and respected crew.

The two engines heading the Red Arrow were Pennsylvania Railroad class K4s 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotives 422 and 3771. Engine 422 was the lead, or first, locomotive on the train. (In mountainous terrain, the Pennsylvania Railroad often coupled two locomotives, called “double-heading.”)

The letter, s, after the K4 type, or class, of locomotive appears to create the plural form of K4, as in the hypothetical sentence, “Two K4s led a train,” but K4s does not mean multiple K4 engines. Instead, the s after K4 indicates that this locomotive’s boiler was “superheated,” an innovation that increased the power produced by the boiler. The “superheater” was applied to many kinds of locomotives, especially engines optimized for high speed.

The numbers, 4-6-2, in the title of the K4s locomotive are a classification dating to 1901 when Frederick M. Whyte, mechanical engineer with the New York Central Railroad, began categorizing steam locomotives based on the number and position of their wheels. According to Whyte’s timeless taxonomy, a 4-4-0 locomotive, called the “American Standard” because it was one of the most prevalent engines, had four wheels in its “leading truck,” four “driving wheels,” and no wheels behind the drivers.

In the 1830s, John B. Jervis, chief engineer of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, developed the leading truck, sometimes called the “engine truck,” a set of unpowered wheels at the front of locomotives that swiveled and helped to guide the engines through curves, reducing the pronounced tendency of early locomotives to derail. The wheels behind the drivers (and not all steam locomotives had wheels behind the driving wheels) also swiveled on a so-called “trailing truck.” Each class K4s 4-6-2 Pacific locomotive on the Red Arrow had four unpowered wheels in its leading truck, six driving wheels, and two unpowered wheels in its trailing truck.

With boiler pressure of 205 pounds, a K4s locomotive could reach a speed of one hundred miles per hour, even though the engine weighed almost 310,000 pounds (the equivalent of eighty-five Jeep Grand Cherokees). A K4s locomotive typically was served by a class 130P75 or class 110P75 tender, a rectangular tank car that bore the locomotive’s fuel (coal) and water. A tender that served a K4s locomotive could carry almost fourteen thousand gallons of water and nearly twenty-two tons of coal. When the water in the locomotive’s boiler was heated, it expanded as it turned to steam, creating great pressure. The steam pushed pistons connected to rods that turned the driving wheels.

Between 1914 and 1928, the Pennsylvania Railroad built a total of 425 class K4s 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotives, 350 in the company’s Altoona Shops and seventy-five by contract with the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. Locomotive K4s 422 was manufactured in the Altoona Shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad in July 1917, and engine K4s 3771 was built in Altoona in June 1920.

Combining speed and power, the adaptable K4s was the workhorse on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s passenger lines for decades, a system that encompassed thousands of miles. Long a favorite of rail engineers and railfans, the K4s locomotive was a masterpiece of engineering that welded function and grace into a “tireless and tough” mechanical personality that, in the opinion of many, was the best steam locomotive ever made. Today, only two K4s steam locomotives survive: engines 1361 and 3750. Engine 1361 is being restored at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and K4s 3750 is on static display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

On February 18, 1947, the Red Arrow’s “consist” (pronounced with the accent on the con), a railroading term meaning the equipment on a train behind the locomotives and tenders, was fourteen cars in the following order:
1. Postal Car 5473
2. Passenger Coach-Baggage Car 4758 (called a “Combine”)
3. Passenger Coach 4289
4. Pullman McCarr
5. Pullman Shraders
6. Dining Car 7960
7. Pullman East Alton
8. Pullman Ogden Canyon
9. Pullman Cascade Timber
10. Pullman Dixie Land
11. Pullman Cascade Heights
12. Pullman Francis Hopkinson
13. Passenger Coach 4013
14. Baggage-Express Car 5959.
Like most overnight passenger trains, the Red Arrow had sleeping cars known as “Pullmans” manufactured and operated by the Pullman Company of Chicago. (The Pennsylvania Railroad numbered its cars, while the Pullman Company gave charming names to its cars.) Pullmans had “roomettes” for sleeping or relaxing and were staffed by Pullman porters, most of whom were African Americans and members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founded in 1925 by labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph. Pullman porters depended on tips for much of their income and were renowned for their courteous service; some passengers, however, reflecting insensitive racial attitudes, called all Pullman porters “George,” the first name of the founder of the company.

As an elite passenger train, the Red Arrow joined the Broadway Limited, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s most famous express train, named for the main line of the railroad, which the company called the “Broad Way of Commerce.” Originally known as the Pennsylvania Special, the Broadway Limited began taking passengers from New York City to Chicago in 1902. In those days, trainmen called passenger trains “the varnish” because of the lustrous finish on their wooden coaches and used the expression, “blocking the varnish,” when a slower freight train obstructed an express flyer.

After leaving Detroit at 5:20 pm, the Red Arrow stopped for passengers in several cities, including Monroe, Michigan (6:14 pm); Toledo, Ohio (6:45 pm); and Tiffin, Ohio (7:35 pm) and was scheduled to arrive at Pennsylvania Station in Pittsburgh at 11:49 pm. That night, however, the Red Arrow was late.

While passengers disembarked and boarded in Pittsburgh, three mechanics from the Pennsylvania Railroad inspected the Red Arrow’s engines and air brakes, making minor repairs to the two locomotives, which were to be replaced when the train reached Altoona. The Cincinnati Limited, a Pennsylvania Railroad express train transporting two hundred people to New York City and other points in the East, arrived in Pittsburgh just after the Red Arrow and was scheduled to leave at 12:03 am. But with the Red Arrow delayed, the Cincinnati Limited left the Steel City before the Red Arrow, which departed at 1:05 am, an hour and four minutes late.

As the Red Arrow slowly pulled out of Pittsburgh, twenty-six-year-old Joseph Dutrow of the village of Enhaut near Harrisburg chased the train through the station. He had just said goodbye to his wife and daughter who were visiting his mother-in-law in a Pittsburgh hospital. The next morning, Dutrow had to be at work at the Bell Telephone Company in Lancaster and could not miss the train. He stopped once to catch his breath and almost gave up, but with one last sprint, he jumped aboard and found a seat in Passenger Coach-Baggage Car 4758, the train’s crowded second car. Lucky, he thought.

In the Red Arrow’s third car, Passenger Coach 4289, sat Irene and Wanda Turek, ages seven and three, on their way home to Altoona from Detroit where they had been visiting their grandparents with their mother. Waiting on the platform in Pittsburgh to join them for the ride to Altoona, Frank Turek, the girls’ father, had caught a train to the Steel City after work as a machinist in the Altoona Shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Turek’s wife, Antoinette, who had made seven trips on the Red Arrow, told him their car had been hot and had lurched back and forth all the way from Detroit. To the knowledgeable railroader Frank, one of the car’s wheels (the one under his family’s seats) seemed to have a flat spot, so the Tureks changed seats. “We’ll be making time on the flats” (between Pittsburgh and Johnstown), he assured his wife, “because we have a good man on.” Engineman Mike Billig, Turek knew, had risen through the rough ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad to become one of the company’s most respected drivers. With no stops scheduled between Pittsburgh and Altoona, Frank Turek thought, the Red Arrow might make up some of the time it had lost in the Steel City.

As most passengers dozed in the seats of their coaches or the berths of their Pullmans, the Red Arrow reached AR (Allegrippus Ridge) Tower near the town of Gallitzin at the summit of the Alleghenies. Just west of the tower, Engineman Billig made a “running” (while the train was moving) test of the air brakes, required by the Pennsylvania Railroad before trains began the hazardous twelve-mile descent to Altoona.

At AR Tower, Billig released the brakes and locked the throttle lever that enginemen used to control the speed of steam locomotives in the “closed” position, taking power completely off the train. The Red Arrow slowed to twenty miles per hour, and J.M. Ryan of Cresson and W.I. Wertz of Bellwood, operators in AR Tower, clocked the train at 3:17 am as it eased past them on track two. Fourteen minutes earlier, the eastbound Cincinnati Limited had cleared AR Tower, also on track two. Ten minutes before the Red Arrow, two eastbound “helper” locomotives had passed Gallitzin on track one, returning to Altoona.

In 1947, there were four tracks at the peak of Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies. From south to north, track one, the so-called “inside track,” was for eastbound freight trains. Track two, the second from the inside, was for eastbound passenger trains. Track three, the third from the inside, was for westbound freight trains. Track four, the “outside” or northernmost track, was for westbound passenger trains.

Two miles east of AR Tower lies Bennington Curve, a dangerous spot on the Pennsylvania Railroad named for a village that was home to Irish laborers who built railroad tunnels near Gallitzin. The town of Gallitzin, originally known as West End, was founded in 1873; by 1890, its population had risen to nine thousand, second only to that of Johnstown in Cambria County. The hamlet of Bennington was abandoned in the early 1900s, and its only remnant, a small cemetery on a lonely hillside, is said to be haunted by ghosts who appear at night when visitors flash the headlights of their cars.

Bennington Curve is near the highest point on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Keystone State. In Harrisburg, the railroad is only 310 feet above sea level, but by Altoona, the road rises to 1,174 feet above tide. In the next twelve miles, the railroad climbs almost one hundred feet per mile to nearly 2,200 feet above sea level at Bennington Curve.

Between AR Tower and Bennington Curve, the Red Arrow passed through New Portage Tunnel, then the primary route for eastbound passenger trains at the summit of Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies. The tunnel, three-tenths of a mile long, was completed on December 10, 1852, the oldest and southernmost of three side-by-side tunnels built in Gallitzin by the Main Line of Public Works and the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Main Line of Public Works was a patchwork transportation system in the mid-1800s that consisted of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, the Pennsylvania Canal, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad and required three cumbersome transfers of passengers and baggage to traverse the state. In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad bought (and quickly replaced) the inefficient Main Line of Public Works. The middle tunnel of the three so-called “Gallitzin Tunnels,” the Allegheny, seven-tenths of a mile long, was finished by the Pennsylvania Railroad on February 6, 1854, nine days before the company opened Horseshoe Curve. The third tunnel, the Gallitzin, nearly seven-tenths of a mile long, was completed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1904. Gallitzin Tunnel was closed by Conrail in 1995 after the adjacent Allegheny Tunnel was widened and heightened to accommodate what the railroad industry calls “double-stack” container cars.

At the east portal of New Portage Tunnel, the Red Arrow began its descent of the Alleghenies with a one-mile downhill slope called “The Slide” to Bennington Curve on daunting grades between 1.4 percent and 2.4 percent. Bennington Curve is the first of a series of bends between Gallitzin and Altoona, the most famous of which is Horseshoe Curve. Descending the mountain on Bennington Curve itself, the railroad turns to the right at a steep grade of 1.7 percent.

The degree to which railroad tracks descend or ascend, called their “grade,” is expressed as a percentage. On railroads, grade is stated as the number of feet of rise or fall in a horizontal distance of one mile. There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so a grade of fifty-two feet per mile is approximately 1 percent. On “main line” railroads, grades are usually engineered to be 1 percent or less, and although there are grades of 2 percent or more on American railroads, they are not common.

In addition to being level, the ideal railroad would be straight because train resistance increases on curves, although curves cannot be eliminated because trains must travel around mountains or snake through valleys. A railroad curve can be depicted as the rounded edge of a gigantic piece of pie, a slice of a circle formed by two lines drawn from the center of the circle through two points one hundred feet apart on a straight line. A railroad curve of 5° is considered mild, 10° tight, and 15° extremely tight. Bennington Curve descends eastward at 8°30'.

The effects of centrifugal force on trains, especially on curves, can be lessened by “superelevation,” raising the outer rail of a track, which reduces the chance of derailment. The outer rail on track two at Bennington Curve, the track on which the Red Arrow was running, was superelevated by three and one-half inches, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s standard on such a curve.

As Engineman Billig exited New Portage Tunnel, he judged his speed at thirty miles per hour and applied the brakes, but then released them, as enginemen were taught to do, as he approached Bennington Curve, the same procedure automobile drivers are instructed to follow. The speed limit on the long stretch of straight, or “tangent,” track between New Portage Tunnel and Bennington Curve was thirty-five miles per hour. The speed limit on Bennington Curve itself was thirty miles per hour. The Red Arrow’s locomotives did not have speedometers, although few locomotives of that era did. Enginemen were trained to judge their speed by the “feel” of the ride and by timing their progress with their watches while passing mileposts along the tracks.

Two-tenths of a mile from Bennington Curve, the Red Arrow appeared to be increasing speed, so Billig again applied the brakes, but only on the cars of the train—not on the locomotives or tenders because he did not think it was necessary to control the train’s speed. On the downhill slant to Bennington Curve, however, the Red Arrow continued to gain speed. As Billig entered the curve, he was looking forward with his head outside the cab, peering through the dense fog. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that the throttle lever in his cabin had unlatched accidentally and moved itself to the “half-open” position, accelerating the Red Arrow just as it came into the sharp curve. Billig frantically returned the lever to the closed position, but it was too late.

Chapter Ten
The Littlest Passenger

At 3 am on February 18, 1947, two-year-old Sandra Lee Brunatti slept in her mother’s lap in Passenger Coach-Baggage Car 4758, the second car on the Red Arrow. Asleep in Sandra Lee’s lap was her new rag doll. In the seat next to Sandra Lee and her mother, Alma, twenty-three, was Innocenza Brunatti, Alma’s mother-in-law, who had made the doll for Sandra Lee.

As the Red Arrow reached the peak of the Alleghenies, Alma awakened Sandra Lee. The family was coming to Altoona from Detroit to visit Alma’s father, Vincenzo Girolami of Bakerton in Cambria County, who was dying. Preparing to leave the train, Alma walked the toddler Sandra Lee to the restroom in their busy coach, but the room was occupied. With a wave to Innocenza, Alma signaled that they would try the lavatory in the car behind them, Passenger Coach 4289. Innocenza stayed in her seat.

Waiting for them in the Altoona Passenger Station were Alma’s sisters: Frances, Lena, and Olivia. Asleep in his home near Detroit was Alfonso (Al) Brunatti, Innocenza’s son, Alma’s husband, and Sandra Lee’s father, who the night before had seen them off at Detroit’s Fort Street Union Station. In four hours, he would awaken to news on the radio of a train wreck in Pennsylvania.

When the Red Arrow crashed, Passenger Coach-Baggage Car 4758, Innocenza’s coach, was ripped from the rails and dragged five hundred feet across tracks two, three, and four, stopping right side up in the track bed at the edge of the gorge. Passenger Coach 4289, Alma and Sandra Lee’s car, tumbled end-over-end for three hundred feet, landing backward and upside down on top of Postal Car 5473, the first car on the Red Arrow, at the edge of the embankment.

Nine sailors were in Passenger Coach-Baggage Car 4758 with Innocenza. When the coach came to rest, they broke windows, crawled out, and began pulling people to safety. One sailor ran to Alma and Sandra Lee’s coach behind him and smashed a window. Alma lifted Sandra Lee through the broken glass, and the seaman took her from Alma’s hands.

At 7 pm that day, Al Brunatti arrived in Altoona by train to see Alma and Sandra Lee, who had been admitted to Altoona Hospital. Then he went to Mercy Hospital to identify his mother’s body. Innocenza had died in the arms of a rescuer, Al was told, but he received no report on her injuries or the cause of her death. Innocenza was one of the first passengers reached, but among the last to be identified. “She had contusions,” Al said. In the rush to name the people killed or injured on the Red Arrow, authorities first identified Innocenza as Mrs. Renetti and Mrs. Renatti, close to Brunatti, but not correct, and in the coming days, newspapers and wire services repeatedly misspelled Innocenza’s first name.

Born in Tenno, Austria, Innocenza was sixty-one years old when she was killed. She had come to the United States in 1920 and helped her sister, Eginna, emigrate and settle in Cambria County. Innocenza and her husband, Oresta, were married in 1920 and had one child, Alfonso, born in 1922. Oresta was in the United States when Innocenza immigrated, but he died in 1941 at the age of fifty-seven. Al dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and joined the navy where he served as a gunner’s mate in the South Pacific. Innocenza took English lessons so she could read Al’s letters from the navy—“without anyone having to read them to her,” Al remembered. Innocenza liked bingo and the movies and was a great cook. “She was smart as a whip,” said Al, and had a great memory and sense of direction. “She knew her way around Cambria County better than I did,” he recalled. Innocenza was a hard worker and well liked by her neighbors. Said Al: “She never said a mean word about anyone.”

In 1945, Al enrolled in the Johnstown Veterans School to become an electrician after being honorably discharged from the navy. “After World War II,” he said, “I wasn’t about to go into the mines” where many of his relatives worked. Alma and Al married in 1944, and Sandra Lee was born on March 28, 1945. In 1946, Al, Alma, and Sandra Lee moved to Michigan and took Innocenza with them; Innocenza’s sister and family already lived there. For seventeen years, Al worked as a construction superintendent, installing electricity in coal cleaning plants throughout the eastern United States.

Vincenzo Girolami, Alma’s father, died the day the Red Arrow crashed. His body and Innocenza’s were laid out together in the living room of the Girolami home, and on Thursday, February 20, Vincenzo was buried in Ebensburg’s Holy Name Cemetery where Innocenza was laid to rest the next day. On February 20, Sandra Lee was discharged from Altoona Hospital into the care of her relatives, while Alma remained in the hospital. On Friday, February 28, however, Sandra Lee was readmitted, although she has no memory of being in the hospital. Sandra Lee does remember the deep cut on her forehead from the accident. On Sunday, March 2, Sandra Lee was discharged from the hospital again, this time with Alma. “I remember someone carrying me into my grandmother’s house and me saying, “‘Boo-boo, Nonna, boo-boo,’” said Sandra Lee. Nonna is Italian for grandmother, and Magdalena Girolami was Sandra Lee’s maternal grandmother. Later that month, Al, Alma, and Sandra Lee returned to Bakerton from Michigan for good.

In 1950, Al and Alma sued the Pennsylvania Railroad for $50,000, but settled for $19,000. Al received $1,000 for the loss of Innocenza, and Sandra received $1,000 for the cut on her forehead. The $2,000 came out of the $19,000 settlement, as did their lawyers’ fees. The day the trial was to convene, Al and Alma’s lawyers advised them to accept the Pennsylvania Railroad’s offer. “Take what they give you,” Al said they were told. A lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, referring to Innocenza, said, “She was old,” prorating the payment the company offered with her age when she was killed. Al and Alma’s lawyers said they “didn’t like the look of the jury,” meaning they thought the Cambria County jurors might side with the Pennsylvania Railroad. “We got peanuts,” Al said. Alma, who died in 1999, suffered guilt about the trip on the Red Arrow because Al had wanted Alma, Innocenza, and Sandra Lee to fly to Altoona, but Alma had chosen the train, thinking it safer.

Al Brunatti died on April 11, 2010. He had retired in 1983 and resided at Elmcroft Assisted Living Facility near Altoona. Sandra Lee and her family visited him often, as did Al’s other daughter, Candice James of Duncansville, and her family: husband Tim, a retired supervisor with Verizon; son Michael, a college student; and daughter Sarah, an accountant in Pittsburgh. Al liked to travel and play poker on the Internet. Alma and he toured the United States on their vacations, and after Alma passed away, Al visited Italy and the Cayman Islands where he made friends with John and Patsy Ramsey of Boulder, Colorado, whose young daughter, JonBenet, was murdered in 1996. Four years ago, Al became paralyzed, but learned to walk again with the help of a walker. He liked to go out to dinner.

Sandra Lee is married to Jeffrey Mertens, a dentist, and manages her husband’s practice in Peters Township, near Pittsburgh. Sometimes Sandra Lee watches her granddaughter, Talia, who is about her age at the time of the Red Arrow and asks, “What is going through her mind? What will she remember? I consider myself a religious person,” said Sandra Lee. “I think a Supreme Being guides us all. And the older I get, the more I ask God: ‘Why me? What am I supposed to be doing with my life that I was spared and my Nonna killed?’”

Sandra Lee still has the scar on her forehead from the wreck, although over the years it has faded. The memory of the accident, though, has not. Last summer, she could not get on a train at the Cambria County Fair. “Life happens everyday to people,” she said. “You put one foot in front of the other. That was my father’s philosophy, and it is mine, too. I can’t imagine what he went through. First, his mother—and then Mom and me. And he was only twenty-five. ‘Get on with your life,’ he told us. ‘Put one foot in front of the other.’ I guess that’s what he did.”

Sandra Lee’s enduring memory of the Red Arrow is of her new rag doll, lost in the wreckage with the possessions of so many other passengers. After rescuers recovered the victims, they began retrieving the passengers’ personal effects. In heap after jumbled heap along the tracks, they stacked suitcases, garment bags, briefcases, magazines, books, knitting, hats, shoes, and clothing.

On top of the highest pile, with matted yarn hair and a dirty face, lay the littlest passenger.