Excerpt from Nashville,
Chattanooga & St. Louis "The Dixie Line"
by Dain L. Schult
There was a slight grade and lots of curves.
By no means was this a section of track for straight-line
speeding and yet both trains were bearing down on each other
as if in a foot race for life.
No one won that day.
Besides the curves there was an overhead bridge
that obscured engineers’ vision at this particular sight.
With no grade crossings to blow for, there wasn’t even
the possibility of hearing the other engine in the distance
until it was too late for all concerned.
Engineers David Kennedy and William Lloyd met
head-on at 7:20 AM.
In the most futile of actions, Kennedy “wiped
the clock” (applied the air brakes) and probably didn’t
have time to even begin mouthing a prayer as the hot metal
of 281 and 282 became one. His employee timetable was found
folded under his lifeless body after the crash. He had been
on duty for just 52 minutes that day.
Engineer Lloyd didn’t even have time to apply the air
on 281 as it went airborne off the track from the impact of
the crash. He had been on duty for 9 hours and 52 minutes.
His death was that much more tragic and poignant because it
was his last day of service before retiring from the NC&StL.
281’s boiler was stripped “back
shop clean” by the impact of hitting 282. 282 went forward
through #1 baggage car becoming totally demolished in the
process. The first 3 wooden passenger cars of #1 were tossed
off the track in willy-nilly fashion but surprisingly the
last two wooden cars and the two Pullmans stayed on track.
#4’s first 5 cars were strewn all over
the place off the track but amazingly the last 3 cars didn’t
derail and were only slightly damaged.
Like toys strewn across a child’s bedroom
floor, what’s left of NC# 1 and #4 is spread across
the landscape. Parts of one of the engines are in the foreground,
as passenger cars lie stacked on top of one another.
With two 80-ton engines colliding, an explosive
sound let loose that was heard for two miles. The earth moved
under the tracks and a nearby creek vibrated in reciprocation
for the terrible movement on the track. Body parts went flying
through the air. Like unrestrained crash test dummies, limp
bodies slammed into glass, steel, wood and dirt.
As the screeching of metal on metal subsided to the wails
of agony of the injured and dying,
young George Scott tried to regain his bearings and took a
deep breath. He had been tossed around in the car he chose
to sit in at 6AM but he wasn’t hurt – just shook
up which was better shape than probably anybody else in the
same car. Blood was running down the aisle of the car like
water pouring from a hose. A number of people in his car weren’t
moving at all. He raised the shade, removed what glass remained
of the window and clamored out the side of the car.
Turning away in horror, Scott wandered aimlessly
around the scene of the accident – like the moth attracted
to the light, he wanted to break free and run away but found
that he couldn’t. He would wander, as if in a trance,
for the next 3 days all over Nashville, all the while blood
covering his clothes.
Willis Farris wasn’t as lucky. Having
happily accepted the seat proffered by that young man, he
was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He died instantly.
The young man who donated his seat survived.
So did Brakeman Corbitt. At first unconscious,
Corbitt was taken to the morgue and was just about to be embalmed…
then he moved. Immediately rushed to a hospital, he waited
in line with the other injured and dying victims. Battlefield
triage decisions were being made and one of Corbitt’s
legs was the target for the surgeon’s saw. The doctors
were deft enough with his amputation that the brakeman could
later walk without a limp. Good thing that they did. Corbitt
was able to survive a 1951 wreck by jumping from his train.
Within minutes of the wreck locals were showing
up to either try to help the injured or stand there like rubberneckers
watching the ultimate highway pile-up. It is estimated that
up to 50,000 spectators showed up throughout the day to witness
the disaster for themselves. With body parts splayed all over
the scene, and no way to literally reconnect who was with
what, wagons were brought in carrying tubs so that rescuers
could toss dismembered parts into them for transport back
To this day there remains questions about the precise body
count. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) officially
listed 101 passengers as dead and 171 as injured. Other sources
list the number of dead at 121. In any event, it was and still
remains the worst train wreck in American history in terms
of the number of dead and injured.
Read the full report from the
Interstate Commerce Commission