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Another Era, Another Train Wreck

January 16, 1987|JULIET POPKIN | Popkin lives in Pacific Palisades

As I watched a television interview with two young survivors of the worst train wreck in Amtrak's history, inevitably it reminded me of the catastrophic train wreck I had been in on the Labor Day weekend of 1943. The wreck of the Congressional Limited, that served the same route between Washington and New York as the Amtrak train that crashed Jan. 4, killed at least 78 people and injured more than 100.

For me it had been a very exciting trip. My future mother-in-law had invited me to accompany her on a visit to Ft. Eustis, Va., where my fiance, Dick, was ill in the Army hospital. On the way back we would visit his brother and sister-in-law, who were living and working in Washington.

Since I had never been south of Atlantic City before and I hadn't seen Dick for several months, I was full of anticipation and curiosity.

Before the wreck, my most jolting experience on the trip was changing trains in Washington. Zelda, my mother-in-law, and I spotted a train that appeared to be heading for the right destination and rushed to board.

Resisting Zelda was not easy, but a determined conductor prevented us from boarding.

We looked up to see window after window of black faces regarding us impassively. We were heading into the South, and had seen our first Jim Crow car. No whites could ride with blacks. And that was wartime when blacks and whites were fighting and dying together.

When we returned to Washington for our brief visit, we discovered that Roy, my future brother-in-law, had purchased Pullman seats for our return trip to New York.

With the constant shifting of soldiers and their dependents, the trains were extremely crowded, so he thought we'd be better off with comfortable reserved seats. Although his mother scolded him for his extravagances, we later had ample reason to be grateful to him for that decision.

Long-distance phone calls were a luxury then, so I didn't think I needed to call my parents back in the Bronx. They knew I was in good hands and I hadn't specified an exact time for my return. I would call when I got back to the city. If it were late, I'd stay overnight in Manhattan at Zelda's apartment.

There were just two or three Pullman cars at the end of the long train. In front of us were two elaborate dining cars. Between them and the engine were the ordinary coaches.

It was great being with Zelda on the train. She and her late husband had been in the public-relations business for many years, and knew all kinds of important people in politics, journalism, philanthropy and the literary world. Thus, she was able to point out various fellow passengers including Chinese author Lin Yutang, whose works were popular at the time. Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain was another eminent person I remember in our car.

As we headed north toward Philadelphia, we decided we were hungry. It was shortly before 6 p.m. when we made our way into the dining car and were seated at a table for two, the table closest to our Pullman car. Those dining cars were beautifully appointed--white linen cloths and napkins, substantial cutlery and a small vase of flowers. It all felt marvelous luxurious to me.

I was content to let Zelda take the lead in ordering as I looked around the car. Across the aisle to our right, I remember seeing a family with a small blond child.

The waiter was writing our order on his pad when there was a tremendous jolt. I still have a perfectly clear vision of seeing his eyes widen in shock as he seemed to fly toward the front of the car.

Later I would have visions of others including the family with the child similarly levitated. I never knew what happened to any of them.

Zelda and I found ourselves under the table. We were covered with coal dust--the engines ran on coal then--and we had no idea what had happened. Nor at first did we think of anything except rushing into the restroom just behind us to attempt to clean our faces, hands and arms.

Only when we emerged and heard requests for all able-bodied men to come to the forward part of the train did we realize there had been a terrible wreck.

Like the students I heard interviewed about the Amtrak wreck, we saw nothing of the carnage. Our position in the back of the dining car, the fact that we had fallen under the table so that we were not hit by broken glass, had protected us.

In those days, although we were both able-bodied women, we were not asked to come out to help. Instead we were urged back to our Pullman car, which had miraculously not left the track, to await further instructions.

Now the Pullmans filled up with other uninjured passengers. Word came that the cars that were not damaged would be attached to another engine and pulled away from the scene.

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