Saved By A Ghost

Written by: PennMan

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I have recently retired from a railroad career of over forty years, having worked for Penn Central, Conrail, and finally the FRA, in the fields of engine service and transportation supervision. I have had many strange incidents over the last four decades, but this one, I think qualifies as the strangest.

I was working as a Road Foreman of Engines for Conrail, in the Philadelphia Division (For those in Britain who are unfamiliar with the term, I was the equivalent of a Traction Inspector). However, due to a personnel shortage, I was obligated to “go west, young man,” and work on the Allegheny Division, between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I reluctantly packed my bags and moved, settling into a small apartment near Harrisburg in the Autumn of 1987 and set to becoming qualified on the territory.

The Allegheny Division primarily consisted of the former PRR Main Line, also referred to as The Middle Division, as it had been called prior to Conrail. This was a very heavily-trafficked main line, running over some very steep gradients. It also included some scenic highlights, such as the Horseshoe Curve between Altoona and Johnstown, on the steepest part of the grade. I spent much of the first few months of my assignment “running radar,” or checking train speeds at remote locations using a hand-held radar gun, similar to what police use to catch speeding drivers. I also was obligated to ride with crews periodically to ensure they remained qualified on the physical characteristics of the railroad and obeyed operating rules. Finally, I was responsible for instructing and ultimately passing out new engineers and conductors on this section of railroad.

Shortly after the turn of the year to 1988, I was called and asked to ride an intermodal train west between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, as there was a mindset at the time that the intermodal crews were disregarding rules with a mind towards moving the high-priority trains over the railroad as fast as possible. I didn’t think having a supervisor in the cab would be an effective way to ensure rules compliance, crews being more likely to act in the “letter of the law.” I reported to the former Reading Railroad Harrisburg Yard, now used exclusively for intermodal traffic so as to avoid the congested Enola Yard on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River.

I checked with the Yardmaster as to what train would be heading out next, and was informed it would be TV-17, en route to Chicago. The locomotives had been serviced and were backing on to the train. The lead unit was the Conrail 5017, a relatively new B36-7 constructed by General Electric. The train would have three four-axle diesels and a total of 61 cars. The 4-axle units were preferred for fast trains like intermodal traffic. As I walked towards the lead unit, I fell in with a young man carrying an old-fashioned leather bag to hold all of his rulebooks and other items required by the rules.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t met you yet,” I explained, and introduced myself as a Road Foreman who would be heading west with them to Altoona. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Pat Dunne, pleased to meet you.” He explained he was an engineer trainee and was excited to be making his student trips over the road. “I feel like I’ve been a fireman forever,” he stated, and this odd turn of phrase gave me pause. The position of the fireman had been abolished for about five years now. I shrugged it off and gave it up to him being nervous.

He asked me where I was from, and I told him I grew up on the Jersey Shore, in Long Branch. He seemed to be very excited by this, and asked if I knew some of the engineers who worked over the New York & Long Branch railroad, today New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line. He seemed to be particularly focused on asking if I knew an engineer named Joe Fitzsimmons. “Of course I know of him,” I said. “I’ve never met him, though. Everyone knows he never ran a train again after he wrecked The Broker.” It was true, he had sped a commuter train into a 25MPH speed restriction at 60MPH, and 84 passengers had died, in addition to his fireman. He was long gone from the railroad by the time I started in 1972, but he was still talked about. “Yes,” Pat muttered, “A shame about his fireman. What was the lad’s name, do you recall?” I paused, and responded. “No, I do not remember it, but I know he was not supposed to be on that train that day.” Pat sighed, and his eyes took on a sad cast. “Indeed, it was, so I’ve heard.” I began to get second thoughts about riding with this crew, particularly Mr. Dunne here. I was still a bit alarmed, because I knew most of the crews, and I had certainly never seen him before. I would have to do some investigating once I got off in Altoona.

Before we got to the locomotive, Pat’s face turned white as a sheet. “Boss!” He exclaimed. “I’ve forgotten my time book. I want to introduce myself to the crew. Is there any way you could get it for me?” I hesitated, and then considered his request. I was beginning to get a very uneasy feeling about this whole situation. “Sure,” I said slowly. “I’ll go grab it and bring it out. But I have to stress the importance of keeping it on you.” We parted and I headed back to the yard office. I had no sooner closed the door behind me then I heard a rumbling and saw TV-17 heading out of the yard!

I watched dumbfounded as the train rolled west, out of the yard. I stormed into the yardmaster’s office. “Why did you send that train out?! I was going to get on it! And the student engineer left his time book here!” I was fuming at this point, my thoughts of an early finish to my day thwarted. The Yardmaster gave a wide-eyed, puzzled look. “What student are you talking about?” I continued to glare at him. “The one I walked out to the engine with!” He cocked his head and responded slowly, like he would to a child. “Boss, you were by yourself the whole time, I watched you from the tower here.” At that, my stomach began churning. This was quickly turning into a day for the ages. I sat down and tried to process some of the information.

I had been in the office for about an hour, waiting for another train to arrive for eventual westward departure, when the phone rang. I answered it and identified myself. It was the Assistant Superintendent for the Division. “You need to get to Thompsontown, pronto.” I blinked, having visions of a derailment or a stop signal violation dancing across my eyes. “What happened?” I asked, hoping it would be nothing too serious. The Superintendent’s voice took on a serious tone. “TV-17 just smashed into a coal train. It’s awful. I mean, truly horrible. Please get there soon.” And he hung up. I don’t recall much of the next few minutes, but I’m told my fainting shook the building.

When I recovered, I drove to the wreck scene, and it was worse than I could ever had imagined. The locomotives and cars were scattered about and piled atop one another. I found out from the police on the scene that only one of the four crewman in the leading locomotives had survived. “Four?” I asked him. “There should have been five, plus the conductor riding in the trailing locomotives of each train.” The cop shook his head, “The survivor insists there was only him and his engineer on his train. He doesn’t remember seeing anyone extra in the cab of the other train, either.” I shook my head and went home, trying to put the strange events of the day behind me.

I never mentioned the extra person, the person I had spoken to in Harrisburg, the student engineer on his trip west, to anyone else. Railroaders are remarkable for being quick to label someone absolutely nuts. The Yardmaster never told another soul of our conversation, either. He knew something had spooked me, and badly.

I pushed the incident from my mind, and made another thirteen years with Conrail, leaving at the breakup to pursue a career in the Government as an Inspector for the FRA. On one of my last days of my forty-three year career, I was in New Jersey Transit’s Bay Head Yard Office, after a day of inspecting the yard and operations within. As I looked at a wall marked “In Memoriam” near the door, my heart nearly stopped. There, in a black and white photo, stood the young man who had saved me from riding TV-17 all those years ago. He was standing next to a K-4 Pacific right there in Bay Head, the wheel of the engine about the same height. The caption next to it made a chill run through my veins and weakened my legs.

“Patrick Dunne, Fireman, Killed 2-6-51. Woodbridge, NJ. The Broker.

A ghost had saved my life.

(The photo shows the location where The Broker wrecked in Woodbridge, NJ)

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PennMan

2 Comments

  • Profile photo of Anthony Pecoraro

    Wow! Chills.

  • Profile photo of Joethefish

    That was truly incredible!

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