Democracy Dies in Darkness

Local | Perspective

‘Run for your lives!’ was the cry as a train burst across Union Station’s concourse.In 1953, just days before Eisenhower’s first inauguration, brakes on an inbound train failed.

By John Kelly

January 13, 2018 at 4:44 PM

The crash of a runaway passenger train at Union Station on Jan. 15, 1953, caused the floor to collapse. (Washington Evening Star/D.C. Public Library Washingtoniana Collection)

Nice article last week on train accidents in Washington. ["All aboard as Answer Man revisits the day in 1976 a train derailed in Takoma," Jan. 7.] Readers might also be interested in a Union Station accident on Jan. 15, 1953, when a large electric passenger train locomotive lost braking power, crashed into the station and fell into the basement below.

Warren Danzenbaker, Annandale, Va.

It was the week before the first inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and it seemed that all train tracks led to Washington. The overnight Pennsylvania Railroad train from Boston, known as the Federal Express, was due to arrive there that Thursday morning.

The train was two miles from Union Station when passengers realized there was a problem. Frances Burns, a reporter for the Boston Globe, was in the last car of the 16-car train. She had taken her bag down in preparation for arrival and was looking in a mirror to pin her hat on when a jolt threw her against the door.

"I thought, 'What bad engine driving!' " Burns later recalled.

The Union Station crash occurred a week before the first inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Workers raced to repair the floor. (Washington Evening Star/D.C. Public Library Washingtoniana Collection)

Edward Koch, a 25-year-old layout artist for The Washington Post, was on the train, too, on his regular commute from Baltimore. So accustomed was he to the rhythms of the journey that when the train didn't slow as it passed under New York Avenue, as it normally did, he began feeling apprehensive.

"It felt bumpy," Koch said. "Several people were shaken up, and we started getting scared."

Engineer Henry W. Brower had known since passing through Landover that something was wrong. The brakes did not respond fully when he applied them to slow the train on the final stretch. He threw the train into reverse — this just fried the electric engine — and starting blowing the air horn in short blasts.

They were two minutes from Union Station, traveling at 50 mph.

John Feeney was a railroad signalman stationed in a tower at K Street NE, at the edge of the train yard. When the Federal Express raced past without slowing, he phoned the stationmaster's office at Union Station and said a runaway train was headed its way.

A conductor named Thomas J. Murphy started racing from the front of the train to the rear, shouting instructions at passengers: "Lie down on the floor or lie down in your seat! Hold on, because we aren't going to stop!"

Donald Horner, a radio engineer with WTOP, started to move to the back of the train but found the door jammed. He saw a laundry bag and grabbed it to use as a shield.

The speeding train came to rest inside the station. Amazingly, no one was killed. (Washington Evening Star/D.C. Public Library Washingtoniana Collection)

Ray Klopp, in the stationmaster's office, had taken the call from Feeney. He cleared the employees with a no-nonsense command — "Run for your lives!" — then raced to the concourse to warn people who were waiting for the Federal.

At 8:38 a.m., like an angry beast exploding from the jungle, the Federal Express arrived on Track 16. It smashed through the stop block at the end of the track and flew across the platform.

C.C. Magruder of the Union News Co. newsstand looked up to see the locomotive flying toward him.

"I just took one glance over my shoulder and jumped over the counter," he said.

The skittering locomotive was sheathed in sparks and flame as it battered through a supporting column of the concourse roof and bounced across the floor. The floor of the concourse gave way, and the engine dropped into the room below, followed by two cars.

J.A. Stenhouse was retrieving his luggage from a storage locker when the train burst into the station. "There was a tremendous roar," said the architect. "Then I had a flash thought that maybe this was an atomic bomb attack."

Aboard the train, Horner saw a fellow passenger in the smoking compartment grab a wooden chair and use it to smash a window to get out. "I've always wanted to do that," he said.

Although 49 people were injured in the crash, amazingly there were no fatalities.

What had happened? The Interstate Commerce Commission investigated and traced the cause to a design flaw in the air-braking system on the cars, manufactured by the Pullman Standard Car Co. of Chicago.

There was an angle cock at the end of each car that needed to be opened for the air brakes to function. Those angle cocks had come into contact with the underframe of the third train car, closing the valves and rendering the air brakes ineffective. (The ICC recommended that the valves be moved about four inches.)

Two days after the accident, Brower, the engineer, was back on the job, driving a train from Union Station to New York City. Noted The Post: "Brower spent a half-hour meticulously testing the diesel's brake and steam pressure before leaving at 4 p.m."

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit

John Kelly writes John Kelly's Washington, a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.

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