Custer Creek, MT Washout Of Trestle Causes Wreck, June 1938



Freak Storm Blamed For Washout Of Trestle.


Several Days Needed For Accurate List Of Casualties.

Miles City, Mont., June 20 -- (UP) -- A special train bearing 11 more bodies from the wrecked Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul crack train "Olympian," on Custer Creek was due here this afternoon, the Milwaukee train agent said.
Twenty-three bodies were in a morgue, one body was in Glendive, where it had floated 80 miles downstream and the body of FRED RASCHKE, a mail clerk, had not been brought to the city.
Milwaukee officials said at least 20 bodies were in a submerged coach, yet untouched. Based on these figures, the known deaths were set at 56.
Train Wreck Scene, Custer Creek, Mont., (Via tural telephone to Miles City, Mont.), June 20 -- (UP) -- Cranes pulled smashed coaches of one of the world's worst railroad disasters from the muddy waters of Custer Creek today as the death toll reached 40 dead and 67 injured. Authorities said the death toll might exceed 60.
A freak cloudburst that sent a "flash flood" roaring down Custer creek, transforming it into a raging torrent, caused a trestle to collapse under the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific's westbound Olympian Sunday morning, plunging a locomotive and six cars into the swirling waters.
40 Bodies Located.
J. J. OSLIE, assistant passenger agent of the Milwaukee, who arrived by plane from St. Paul, said 40 bodies of men, women and children victims of the disaster has been located. Workers with acetylene torches cut through steel cars searching for bodies.
Custer County Coroner RALPH BRAY said 15 bodies, several unrecognizable, were in the Miles City morgue; one was at Glendive, and four more were recovered from the wreckage during the night.
"At least 20 more will be added to the death list when rescuers raise a submerged sleeper," BRAY said.
Rescuers said several bodies had been carried downstream by the torrent.
Several days will be required to complete an accurate casualty list.
Forty-five bandaged survivors were in Miles City hospitals. Many of them were only slightly injured and were to be released within the next 24 hours.
Custer creek is 26 miles east of Miles City in eastern Montana. Miles city is 100 miles from the North Dakota line.
Milwaukee trains were running on schedule over Northern Pacific tracks. They were routed over the latter road from Terry to Miles City, where they returned to the Milwaukee mainline.
In addition to pulling wrecked cars out of the creek, crews also began to drive piles over the old trestle site for a temporary structure. Railroad officials said they expected to have trains running over the temporary bridge Tuesday.
The waters of Custer Creek had receded, revealing the torn and twisted locomotive and cars of the Olympian, deluxe passenger flier of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad. Workers with acetylene torches cut through the steel walls of the cars to free more bodies.
A pall of smoke from the acetylene torches hung over the wreckage as the sun rose this morning. A crew rushed construction of a new trestle, from which a crane will attempt to raise a submerged sleeping car known to contain bodies of 17 passengers.
Wrecking Crew Out.
A wrecking train was ordered out of Miles City to make the attempt, but it is feared here the car is so full of mud the bottom may break and bodies float downstream.
Only two men, DEAN HANSCOM, New York City, and A. W. OLSON, a trainman of Tacoma, Wash., escaped from the car. HANSCOM'S parents arrived here this morning from New York.
The railroad bridge over Custer Creek collapsed beneath the speeding train early Sunday morning. Approximately 190 passengers were aboard. Of this number 67 were injured. Thirty were known to have escaped uninjured. It was feared that all the remainder were dead.
Some of the dead had been sent into Miles City, 26 miles away, on the rescue trains which had taken the injured to hospitals.
Among the dead were four members of the train's crew. The rest were passengers -- men, women and children. Some had been crushed, but most had been drowned when the coaches in which they were riding plunged into the creek which usually is a dry bed but at the time of the disaster was brimming from bank to bank with waters of a cloudburst.
J. J. OSLIE, assistant passenger agent of the Milwaukee railroad, arrived here by plane from St. Paul, Minn., and immediately made an inspection of the wreckage of the Olympian.
He announced that the death tol was known to be 40.
"Twenty bodies have been recovered and there are at least 20 more in the wreckage." he said. "There are 45 persons in Miles City hospitals."
The bodies were clad in pajamas and night gowns which made identification difficult. The garments were mute testimony that the victims had been jolted suddenly into wakefulness only to die a split second later before they could do anything to save themselves.
There could be no positive count of those who had been on the train until the railroad company checked the tickets sold at all stations between here and Chicago where the train began its run Friday night, bound for the Pacific northwest.
Some bodies were swept down stream by the torrent which was powerful enough to move an all steel Pullman 50 feet. It may be days before all bodies are recovered and the exact number of dead established. The body of a woman victim was recovered several miles downstream from the trestle.
The train was one of the fastest operating on American railroads. It was roaring across the high plain county of eastern Montana where the road bed is solid, the towns few, and high speeds are customary. A short while before it reached the trestle, rain began to pour in torrents, but it did not obscure the right of way.
No Water On Track.
There was no water on the track -- nothing to warn the man in the cab of approaching disaster. A torrent 30 feet high was raging down the usually dry creek, but he couldn't see it until it was too late. The huge locomotive roared over the bridge and reached the other side. So did the tender and the baggage coach. But the trestle collapsed suddenly and completely beneath the mail coach and the tourist coach directly behind it and they, with the track beneath them plunged into the creek. Their weight, multiplied by their plunge, literally jerked the locomotive off the track and into the air and backward -- like the tip of a lashing whip.
The locomotive came down on top of the baggage car. From the other end of the train two Pullman cars were jerked into the torrent by the couplings which held fast. Another Pullman tottered on what remained of the trestle for perhaps five minutes white its passengers, marshalled by a heroic Negro porter, scrambled out to safety. Then it plunged. Five cars -- a dining car, the club and observation car, two standard Pullmans and a bedroom Pullman remained on the track.
Railroad company officials said that the trestle was in good repair. A track-walker had gone over it an hour before the train passed, they said, and found the structure and the creek bed dry.
Worst Disaster.
It was probably the worst disaster on an American railroad since 1887 when an excursion train went through a bridge near Chatsworth, Ill., killing 81 persons. In 1922, 40 were killed near Sulphur Springs, Mo., and in 1925, 39 were killed near Hackettstown, N. J. These were the worst wrecks prior to the present Custer creek disaster.