The Great Railway Disaster At St. Thomas.
One of the worst railway accidents that have happened in South Western Ontario for many years occurred at St. Thomas about a quarter after seven on Friday night, at the crossing of the London and Pt. Stanley and Michigan Central tracks in the very heart of the city. At the hour mentioned an excursion train of eight or ten coaches returning from Port Stanley to London ran into the side of an M. C. R. freight train that was just pulling out of the yard, across the London and Pt. Stanley line. Unfortunately the cars struck by the locomotive of the excursion train were flat cars carrying 5,000 gallon tanks filled with crude oil and one car filled with barrels full of refined oil (kerosene). The oil caught fire at one and in an instant the baggage car (an ordinary box) and the first car in the excursion train, the only cars in this train that left the track, were in flames. The burning passenger coach was full of passengers, the majority of whom were hauled out of the windows by the passengers from the other cars, railway men and citizens who were near the spot, but, sad to relate, ten could not be rescued and were burned to death in the car. The engine cut its way through the M. C. R. train and toppled over on the other side, imprisoning the driver, Harry Donnelly of London, in the debris, where he was burned to death. The fire did not reach the other cars, as they were pushed out of harm's way by the hundreds of men who were quickly on the spot. But the trouble did not end here: The buildings near the track, including Griffin's coal and salt warehouse, several dwellings and the watch houses, caught fire, and while the fire brigade and the citizens were working to subdue the fire in these, which threatened the whole city, one of the oil tanks that had not been broken by the collision exploded with a tremendous roar and shot its contents a hundred feet into the air, spreading in every direction a perfect volcano of flame. When the great crowd of men, women and children realized what had happened and what would follow when the burning oil descended, it started to run, and a scene of awful confusion followed. Horses stampeded and pedestrians were knocked down and injured by them in every direction, and men and women went rolling and stumbling over and over each other and over children in their frantic endeavors to get away from the burning oil, which was showering down on them in balls of fire, burning their faces, hands and necks, setting fire to their clothing and making them mad with pain. It was an awful sight and those who witnessed it will never forget it. It is impossible to tell how many of the St. Thomas people were thus injured, as so many of them went to their own homes to attend to their burns, but it has been asserted by the reporters of the papers that they number not less than a hundred and fifty, perhaps, two hundred. Two received fatal injuries:—Herman Ponsford, bricklayer, formerly of Tilsonburg, who, as a member of the fire brigade, was working on the roof of the Dake House stable with the hose; and a Mrs. Allen of Glanworth, wife of a G. T. R. section man, who died on Saturday. Ponsford was directly in the path of one branch of the whirlwind of flame and was enveloped in it. He stood erect for a moment on the ridge of the roof on which he was working a veritable pillar of fire and then rolled to the ground. He was literally baked, every stitch of clothing having burnt off him in that awful second, and his flesh peeled off in flakes. The flesh of his arms hung down over his hands and was mistaken by bystanders for his shirt sleeves. He was taken to the Dake House, where he died about 7 o'clock next morning, after suffering horribly until midnight, when he became unconscious. He was 31 years old, married, with two children of his own, Eva, aged 4, and George Herman, aged one, and two step children. His remains were buried on Sunday afternoon by the Oddfellows, the funeral being attended by an immense concourse of people.
The disaster was the most appalling one the St. Thomas people have had to bear and the city has been greatly excited ever since it occurred. At one time the flames threatened to sweep the whole city—word was telegraphed to Tilsonburg, in fact, that the city would probably be destroyed—but the firemen worked like Trojans and mastered the flames about half past nine o'clock.
The excursion was that of a Baptist congregation in London. There were about three hundred Londoners on it and 108 St. Thomas people. The driver of the train, Harry Donnelly, was one of the most careful drivers on the Grand Trunk road. He had been an engine-man for fifty years and three months, having begun in England when he was fifteen years old. He had run fast passenger trains on the main line of the Great Western division of the Grand Trunk for 32 years, and had an excellent record, and yet he is blamed for the accident. Some hysterical person who happened to notice at the Port that his gait was shambling, started the report that he was intoxicated. The writer knew Donnelly, and can say there was no more sober, careful and reliable driver on the road. His natural gait was shambling. The simple facts of the matter seem to be that he did not know the road (it was his first and only trip over it, we believe) and that the air brake would not work. Donnelly, it seems to us, was peculiarly liable to such an accident if everything about the brakes on his train was not in good order. For years he had been running fast passenger trains on the main line, where the air brakes are always closely looked after, and where they rarely ever fail to work, and he was used to coming into a yard at a good rate and trusting to his brakes to stop his train right. When he found his brakes would not work he reversed his engine, opened his sand box, whistled for the hand brakes and did everything that mortal man could do to stop his train. Eye witnesses say the wheels of the engine were reversed two hundred yards from the crossing. He refused to jump when his fireman did and stuck to his port and died there like a man. It is a poor return for his heroism to accuse him unjustly of being drunk at his post, more especially when his fireman and everyone who was in his company that afternoon says he was sober and all the evidence that can be gathered goes to show that he drank nothing at the Port all day but one glass of beer early in the afternoon.
Following are the names of the killed:—Engine Driver Harry Donnelly, of London; Mrs. John W. Baynes, of London; Edna Baynes, aged 10, Vina Baynes, aged 7, and Lylia Baynes, aged 11 months, of London; Mrs. Samuel Fraine, of St. Thomas; Frankie Fraine, aged 3; Mr. S. G. Zealand, of St. Thomas; Annie Zealand, aged 2; Mrs. John Smithers, St. Thomas; Robert Smithers, aged three months; Herman Ponsford, St. Thomas; Mrs. Allen, of Glanworth—thirteen in all. Mrs. Fraine was a daughter of Mrs. Priscella Sherk of South Dorchester. Mr. Fraine is a tailor. Mr. Zealand was superintendent of the carpet department in J. & W. Mickleborough's store in St. Thomas. Mrs. Smithers was the wife of a St. Thomas dry goods merchant. Her parents reside in Toronto. Mrs. Baynes was the wife of a London moulder, whose whole family, except one boy, was wiped out by the disaster. Mrs. Zealand managed to escape through a window of the burning coach, and while hanging to the ledge by her hands and looking into the car saw the flames surround and destroy her husband and child and Mrs. Smithers and child. She was so badly burned and shocked that the doctors have very little hope of pulling her through. Many other people were seriously injured, including Hon. Allan Francis, United States Consul at St. Thomas, who was knocked down and run over on the street by a runaway hose reel, but no more deaths are looked for. The accident was a horrible one in all its phases.