January-February 2003

Bellefontaine, Ohio Enginehouse

Saturday, April 25, 1942, began like most days at New York Central's 36-stall Enginehouse in Bellefontaine, Ohio. In this busy wartime, all furloughed men had been recalled, and new ones were being hired. Experienced men were at a premium. Before that day would end, three experienced employees would be dead as the result of the most tragic accident to ever strike this terminal.

As the timekeeper, my workload increased with the workforce reaching 300 men, and growing. This day was an extremely busy one - payday and Saturday, with the usual weekend rush. As the second-shift men reported to work, I passed out to them the daily time cards, and returned to the office. Electrician Kenyon Miller stopped in the office with insurance papers to be signed. He had been off sick, and this was his first day back at work would be his last. Hostler Helper, Sherman Dobie, came in a few minutes later and asked if I would check his time. He was short one-day's pay. I joked with him, and remarked, "Sorry, Sherman, I haven't got the cash here, but I'll see that you get it on the next pay period." As he headed for the roundhouse, he turned, smiled, and said, "Be sure you get it on the next paycheck, Si, (my nickname) I sure need the money." That would be the last check he would receive.

An hour later, at 4 p.m., Firebuilder Sanford Hicks arrived at the office to pick up a late timecard. He had attended a funeral that day. Sanford was a middle-aged man, precise in his work, and one of the most efficient and well-liked men in the roundhouse. He seemed his usual self, thanked me for his timecard, and proceeded to his station. Little did I know that would be the last time I would ever talk to these men?

At 6:45 pm, I had finished mom's good home cooking when our next-door neighbor, Mrs. G.F. Neidhart, wife of a machinist, almost broke the door down coming in. She was nearly hysterical. "Frank called a minute ago and said two or three engines just blew up in the roundhouse!" I couldn't believe this. We lived only about 3/4 of a mile from the roundhouse, and I had heard no explosion. I started to walk to the round house. My dad, a former fireman and engineer, had a gas station a block from home, and as I passed it he wondered where I was going. I told him, and he said he didn't hear anything. A couple of blocks further I passed Sandusky Design Engineer C.L.Anderson's house. He was out in his garden and also said he did not hear anything. I continued on, doubting that anything did happen.

I finally could see the roundhouse in the distance, and knew something had happened. The open end was roped off, and a crowd was standing around. A big L-2 class 4-8-2 was just easing under the coal dock, and I climbed into the cab. Hostler "Ollie" Davis was as white as a sheet, and I could see he was shaken. "It's terrible, just awful. The 4922 blew up in 12 stall. I don't know how many is hurt, and bad too. They've got everybody out now. Worst thing I ever seen in my life, and I just had to get out before I got sick."

I got off the engine, walked to the rope, and raised it to go under. A State Highway Patrolman said, "Hey, you you'll have to stay behind the rope. No one is allowed in here". Just then Master Mechanic Francis H. Winget walked by. "Come on in here, Si, we need help. Get over to the office, and help with the phones. Get the turntable sheet, and start looking up the work reports on 4922." The office was a bedlam. Every phone was ringing with calls from all over the system. Business had to go on - yardmasters ordering trains, and the roundhouse foreman doing their best to fill orders and return operations to as near normal as possible.

No. 4922, a 1926 Schenectady-built K-5b 4-6-2 passenger locomotives, had arrived on train No 11, the Southwestern Limited, from Linndale (Cleveland) at 10:26 a.m. This was a heavy train, and a J-1 Hudson was assigned to the run. That day however, because of a power failure at the last minute, No 4922 was assigned. The engine was cut off the train, and was moved to the inbound ashpit track. This was normal procedure since with few exceptions all trains changed engines in Bellefontaine. The fire was removed from the firebox at 2:15 pm, and the engine was placed in stall 12 at 2:48 pm according to the turntable records. At approximately 4:30 pm, Firebuilder Hicks commenced building a fire with coal, fuel oil, and wood after he had checked the gauge cocks for proper water level in the boiler. As soon as the fire took hold, Hicks continued on to another engine as his duties required. The immediate area became a hive of activity.

The boilermakers finished their work while the running repair machinist checked the work report for any light repairs to be made. The Alemite man was busy with the valve gear while the grease-cup man took care of lubricating the side rods. At approximately 6 pm, trouble developed with the turntable. A gang of mechanics went there to make repairs, fortunately leaving the area of stall 12. About 6:20 pm, Electrician Miller was ready to check the work report for any electrical work. His helper, Fred Hollopeter, climbed in the cab and sat down on the engineer's seatbox. Hicks had just returned to the cab to check the fire. Apparently, he did not check the water glass or the gauge cocks. Perhaps he thought he did. As Hollopeter actuated the automatic train control lever, Miller put his test bar up to the automatic train control receiver located on the right front tender truck. Hollopeter noticed that Hicks was sitting on the fireman's seatbox, and Hicks turned the water pump on. As the cold water gushed on the crown sheet, the explosion occurred, blowing the front-end smokebox out and through the roundhouse wall, but the brunt of the blast went down through the firebox and around the sides and rear end of the cab engulfing Miller in live steam. He died that evening. The blast blew Hicks to the cab roof, and his death occurred instantly. Hollopeter thought the world had come to an end. The next he knew, he was on the floor of the roundhouse, and to this day he says he doesn't know whether he jumped out the window or was blown out. He was badly burned, but recovered and returned to work.

Boilermakers Ray Needles, and Ralph Sargent, were working in the firebox of H-10 class 2-8-2 No. 2273 in stall 11 immediately to the left of 4922. They didn't know what happened, but they thought that perhaps a bomb had been dropped on the roundhouse. Both were burned as they came out of the firebox and down from the cab through the steam, smoke, and cinders, but both recovered.

Sargent, now a heating and plumbing contractor, recently told me how he carried Needles under his arm to safety at the end of the stall. Sargent remarked that he didn't think under normal circumstances he could have carried Needles with both arms. Needles was a big man.

Dobie was sitting on the fireman's seatbox of engine 4892 a K-3 4-6-2, in stall 13 immediately to the right of 4922. This engine was hooked to the roundhouse steam line, and Dobie was watching the fire and keeping steam up on this engine. He was blown out of the cab gangway, and suffered severe burns and other injuries which proved fatal later that evening.

Machinist inspector L.E. "Woppy" Detweiler had just been approaching this section of the enginehouse, and was found in the rear of stall 14 dazed and seriously injured. Years later, he told me that he never fully recovered, although he did return to work a few weeks later.

Dispatcher Norton told me later that when he heard the muffled explosion he had no idea an engine had blown up. From the sound he thought an engine had got away from a hostler and had gone through the enginehouse wall. Several other men who had been in adjoining stalls stated the same.

My future father-in-law, a boilermaker on first shift lived about two blocks from the roundhouse. He said he heard the explosion, and felt the earth shake, and he knew something serious had happened. The concussion from the blast destroyed nearly 75 feet of enginehouse wall, causing the roof over four walls to fall on four locomotives. The next day, bridge and building gangs arrived from Galion and Carey to assist the gang stationed at Bellefontaine and work began to clear away the tons of debris and to remove the partial sections of the four stalls to enable rebuilding.

My saddest task the next day was filing out the Form BP-102 -- closing the record of three good men, noting on line five as reason for leaving service: "Account fatal injuries while on duty." My dad came for me after I finished work, and together we looked over the engine. From the side you couldn't tell the engine had blown up; everything appeared intact until you looked at the front end and around the firebox under the cab. The position of the locomotive showed that the rear end had been raised by the force of the explosion. The right driving wheels were resting on the floor of the enginehouse, and the left driving wheels were suspended over the pit. We were amazed an how the whole engine had been moved off the rails and sat crooked with even the drawbar bent with an offset of approximately 12 inches.

Because of the shortage of motive power at the time, the engine was shipped to Beech Grove Shop near Indianapolis for complete overhaul and was returned to service. It was removed from service in 1952 after many successful runs. Ray Needles returned to work, and now is on pension. Fred Hollopeter worked until he was furloughed in the late 1950s with the end of steam. He recently told me he thought he was the only person around who had survived a boiler explosion while sitting in the cab of the engine involved. Perhaps he is right. The Interstate Commerce Commission report states tersely: "cause of accident." It was found that this accident was caused by "overheating of the crown sheet due to low water." But what was the real cause, we will never know for sure. And, so it was in the engine house.


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