The Dinky was appropriately named.
It was a quaint gasoline powered car with the crew in front, baggage car next and the passengers in the rear. It could be seen carrying mail and passengers on two daily trips from Aurora to Streator and back again until it was discontinued in the 1950s.
About a year ago I wrote a few paragraphs about the 1943 smash-up of the little orange-red train called the Dinky with a freight train south of Montgomery. That brief story was just the tip of the iceberg. It was all that I could discover at the time, but now that I have more details, I know how uninformed I was about the extent of the horror that resulted. So many lives were ended or forever altered that day!
The accident was attributed to human error. The conductor and the brakeman failed to follow instructions to read the orders before proceeding. If they had followed the official protocol, instead of the common practice of reading the orders as they pulled away, they would have avoided the coming inferno.
The Dinky carried a full load in its lone passenger car. Up front was a crew of four trainmen, F. E. Bishop of Galesburg, engineer; Chalmers O. Kerchner of Streator, baggage man; Paul Chrysler, Elmhurst, mail clerk; and John G. Gall, Chicago, assistant chief clerk of the US railway mail service in Chicago. Mr. Gall was thought to be on board because the mail that day contained money.
These men lost their lives in the inferno that resulted when a freight train rammed into the front of the dinky, splitting open the gasoline tanks and showering flames into the baggage car and beyond. The mail was burned to ashes. There was nothing left to salvage by the team of mail inspectors, army personnel, and others sent to help clean out the car.
During the cleanup of the mail car, another body was discovered under the rubble and identified as either Chrysler or Gall. Both had been burned beyond recognition and later identified through a shoe and a watch chain. It is believed they all perished from the impact before the car burst into flames.
Among the most seriously injured passengers was a 17-year-old Oswego boy, Harold Alderman. There were reported to be 14 serious injuries. Among the very seriously injured was Mrs. Laura Gaffino, 53. She was traveling home after attending the wedding of her nephew in Streator. The groom, Dominic Baieto and his bride, Cecilia were accompanying her to Aurora for a brief visit before continuing on to a honeymoon in Ohio.
The bride and groom never made it to their honeymoon, and they, along with Mrs. Gaffino, spent the next painful six months at Aurora’s St. Charles Hospital. Laura had a broken neck, a deep cut from her chin to her mouth, and internal injuries as well as burns and shock. Dominic and Cecilia were badly cut and burned, he also had a fractured leg, and both were in deep shock.
Richard Gaffino, who now lives in Montgomery, was only 13 when his mother was injured. As she lay near death in the hospital he rode his bicycle every day across town to sit by her bedside. The pain in his voice when he talks about those visits and the fear that he might lose his mother shows that all of the victims of that train wreck were not on the train that day. He has preserved the 70-year-old newspaper clippings, and they reveal details about the story that few of us have heard.
One amazing, heroic story of bravery was told of 16-year-old Helen Gilmore of Plainfield. Her quick thinking and dedication saved many lives. She was the first to begin pulling out the stunned passengers. Many were in shock, and had to be dragged or carried out. She later told the Aurora Beacon News reporter – “Somebody had to. I had to get tough with some of the injured to get them to help themselves. They were stunned I suppose, but they had to be got off of that train or be burned alive.”
Her parents were in Aurora waiting for her to meet them for a Silver Anniversary dinner and show. Instead, they found her at a hospital with a badly twisted or fractured ankle.
Firemen ran a hose to the Fox River, 100 feet away, and pumped water to put out the fire. Bodies were moved to the McKeown funeral home in Oswego. The Coroner was Dr. L. A. Perkins of Yorkville.
The location of the accident was said to be just south of the Montgomery border with Kendall County, at a curve on the Fox River Branch Line of the Burlington Railroad. The newspaper at the time said, “The collision occurred on high ground, some 50 yards up a slope from the east river road and just south of the rail bridge of the Fox near the gravel pit where the body of Gangster John Hamilton was dug from a shallow grave.”
Reading through the pages of stories relating to the accident, there are many familiar names of local people who were legendary for their heroic deeds. (Remember this was during the Second World War and people had come together like never before, or maybe since). There was Ernie McGinn, a life-saving expert who worked for the Western United Gas and Electric Co.; Dr. E. W. Logman who was a fixture at the old St. Charles Hospital, and lived just across the street. There was Fr. Leon M. Linden, chaplain of the fire department, and Donald Frazier, commander of the civil air patrol, who took patients to the hospital. Dr. J. O. Murphy of the Burlington took charge of the treatment of the injured and directed the work of rescue.
This all happened seventy years ago, but to Rich Gaffino it might have been yesterday. The memory of that tragedy is burned in his mind. His story is just one of the many stories that the survivors carry with them. It is a reminder that small things often have life altering consequences.