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. The derailment killed 24 and injured 140.
Dennis McIlnay gives the passengers a voice in "The Wreck of the Red Arrow," his nonfiction book published last year. He recounts their stories along with those of their families and the doctors and respondents to the fatal scene. The book also taps into police reports and coroner inquests and includes photos from Bennington Curve, the twist that sent the train hurtling into the gorge that flanks both sides of the railway.
Traveling at an estimated speed of 65 mph, the train took the curve 35 mph faster than the mandated maximum speed limit. Based on the account of the only surviving engineman, Michael Billig, and the observations of locals who witnessed the train passing that night, speed was said to have caused the locomotive derailment.
With nine cars completely over the bank and another four turned across surrounding tracks, passengers sustained a variety of injuries, from lost fingernails to completely severed appendages. The death toll remained low, but wasn't completely reflective of the overall damage: Altoona hospitals were flooded with accident victims for days and even weeks after the crash.
McIlnay focuses on who these people were and where they were going, writing almost like a novelist. Each chapter chronicles a different angle of the accident, while allowing readers to get to know the people behind the names. Hard cover.