The first word of Earl Giberson's obituary on Page 29 of the December 29, 1961 edition of The Philadelphia Bulletin said it all.
As in, Suddenly, Earl Giberson was taken away from his family, his daughter, his friends. Suddenly, Earl Giberson, 64 years old but a man in perfect health, was killed on the way to his job as a night security guard at Lit Brothers. Suddenly, Earl Giberson was killed when he was thrown from the second car of the Market-Frankford El and crushed between the car and the catwalk.
As in, "GIBERSON - Suddenly, Dec. 27th, EARL, of 2914 Robbins av., beloved husband of Rose (nee Maginn). Relatives and friends invited to services, Tues., 11 AM, Petner Funeral Home, 6421 Frankford av. (at Levick st.). Int. Our Lady of Grace Cem. Friends may call Mon. evening."
The paper didn't even get the damn date of his death right.
The Market-Frankford El started off as the Market Elevated Train when Philadelphia Rapid Transit bought out its competitors in 1903. They began construction on October 17, 1904. PRT started building from 45th Street to 69th Street, on Market, above ground, and then started building underground starting in 1909. The Elevated section, the Frankford part of the moniker, was completed in 1922.
For the first 39 years of the Frankford Elevated, there were exactly zero fatalities and zero accidents on the line. People had died from jumping in front of train cars, but never had negligence or fault by the Philadelphia Transportation Company, which later became SEPTA, caused anyone harm on the line.
Frank Dougherty, a former transportation reporter for the Daily News known as Phantom Rider, remembers the accident because of its rarity. "I was a copyboy at the Daily News at the time," he said. "I remember that accident very vividly because it was the first death in almost 40 years of operation. Oh, yeah, they had deaths, people jumping in front of trains -- we used to say they plunged -- but other than that the El ran for 39 years without a death."
"That's pretty impressive and it was significant because the Market-Frankford line is, what SEPTA likes to say, the spine of their system," he continued. "It gets 29 percent of their ridership."
Perfect for 39 years, the El hit a speed bump on the night of December 26. Although the common thought is that the accident occurred at York-Dauphin, it actually happened where the El curves, at York and Front Streets, right before the York-Dauphin stop starts.
At 11:30 p.m., the four-car southbound train went into the curve, hit the right guardrail and the first three cars slid off the tracks. It skidded into the station as sparks began to shoot from the third rail, the electrified one. "There was a terrific jolt," Albert Martin, on his way to work at Girard Bank, said at the time. "And the next thing I was lying on my back on the floor."
"The floor was burning through," Ethel Tierman, the wife of a policeman, said after the crash. "I pushed through a window and crawled along the catwalk to the station. There were sparks flying everywhere. Some of the car was actually melting."
Inside the car, people remained relatively calm. Over 100 policemen were rushed to the scene. Power was cut to the entire area to make sure a fire didn't start. "But everyone kept their heads," Tierman said. "There was no pushing, no shoving."
The crash made heroes of two men. A group of sailors were sitting on the southbound platform of the York-Dauphin stop, and when they saw the crash, William Hamilton, just 17, sprang into action. He yelled to his buddies, "Get back, get back!" Rushing into the car, Hamilton was joined by John Somers, a 26-year-old sergeant in the 26th district. Somers yelled at Hamilton: "We should get the women out first!" They found only one woman who needed help, and got her onto the platform with the help of Hamilton's fellow sailors.
When they entered the second car, Hamilton and Somers made sure to tell everyone not to get out on the left side, where the electrified third rail was. A woman was screaming, "Get my baby! Get my baby!" in the second car, but the two men looked throughout the car and couldn't find a baby. "I guess she was just hysterical," Somers said that night.
The two men tried to get the motorman out, but he refused. "I'm OK. Get the other people out," he yelled. The conductor was Bernard McBride, 46, who had been with PTC for 16 years. McBride was not only a longtime employee - he was one of the most dependable as well.
"He would never do anything that was out of the ordinary," Jim Moss, former Manager of Service Operations for PTC, said. "Never late, never missed a day of work - no sick time. He was the perfect employee."
Moss, now 89, remembers the cause of the accident as stirring up a big debate in the city for months. "There was talk that the guy who was motoring the car fell asleep," Moss said. "Some of the guys thought it was so and some wouldn't commit to it. Either way, the fella lost his ability to motor a train."
Moss said that, at the time, there were lights on the track that would notify the motorman if the train was going too fast. However, Edson Tennyson, city transit director, said right after the crash that there were no speed indicators on the trains. He said the motormen can judge the speed by the "feel."
On January 2, 1962, Russell Ward, president of Transport Workers Local 234, said that the PTC was not doing proper maintenance on the cars, leading to the accident. He didn't blame excessive speed for the crash. "We think the PTC had it all figured out," he said. "They would let the city buy the pick in the poke [PTC]. They were going to talk out with a satchel full of money - money they would have saved by not doing proper maintenance." But a day later, Mayor Richardson Dilworth said speed caused the wreck. "I don't care what they say," the mayor said, referring to Local 234. "The train was going too fast."
The debate intensified. Don Wagner, the Local 234 vice president, said that, "if the mayor tries to make a whipping boy out of our driver, he'll be sorry. If it is speed involved, it is in the schedule the company sets." The mayor and members of Local 234 exchanged barbs and insults for weeks. A PTC investigation revealed no defects in the cars that could account for the derailment.
McBride claimed he was going at the normal rate of speed. "The train seemed to operate normally to Huntington Street," he said in early January. "I let go of the handle as we are instructed. The next thing I know the train lurched and I was thrown to the right and I must have been out or dazed because from that point on I can't account for my actions."
McBride was one of the strongest conductors on the PTC staff, according to Moss. "I was surprised because the guy was a very good friend of mine," he said. "He had a lot of trouble. His wife was sick, and he had a son that was blind. The guy really had a rough life."
On January 8, automatic speed controls were installed on the curve. On March 18, Arbiter Lewis Gill dismissed the contention that anything but speed caused the derailment. "Brakes on the last two trains were sufficient alone to prevent derailment," he said. "In short, my conclusion is that even if there was no normal braking action at all McBride still had time, at the point when he noticed the lack of brakes, to use available emergency procedures and avoid the derailment."
In the end, McBride received a punishment. He was demoted from motorman to conductor, a job which paid him 10 cents an hour less.
Earl Giberson left for work at 11 p.m. on December 26 with a quick final words to his wife, Rose.
"I'll fix it in the morning," he said.
He was talking about an electric clock that night that stopped working that night in their living room at 2914 Robbins Avenue.
Thirty minutes after telling his wife he'd be back to fix the clock in the morning, Earl Giberson was dead. He was standing in the second car near a door when the train flew off the track. The only door that opened when the train hit the guardrail was the one Giberson was standing next to. He fell out the open door and smashed his head on the concrete walkway, crushed in between the walkway and the car.
The night security guard at Lit Brothers Department Store was coming up on retirement. He had just returned to Philadelphia the day before, as he and his wife visited his only daughter over the Christmas weekend in Cleland Heights, Delaware.
The homes on Robbins Avenue are old Philadelphia rowhomes, half-aluminum siding and half stone. Most of the houses on the street have been converted to apartments. It's in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, a very Catholic neighborhood. Paul Zemaro, who still lives down the block from 2914 Robbins, saw him that night leaving for work.
"You know, I saw him that night, and I remember saying 'Hello.'" he said. "Next thing you know, it comes over the radio that the El went out at York and Dauphin and the impact threw him out."
Rose was devastated by the accident. "She was kind of hysterical when she found out," Zemaro said. She moved shortly after the accident. There was talk of a lawsuit against PTC, Local 234 and the city, but nothing in the city's records confirm that any suit was filed.
"They were good neighbors. It's a shame it happened to those kind of people," Zemaro said. "Like I said to my wife when she told me about it this morning, 'I can picture that like it happened yesterday.' It was so shocking, at least to me and the people in the neighborhood."
Rose said after the crash that Earl "always told me he'd rather die quickly than from some long disease." The two had tea and talked about visiting their three grandchildren before he left for work, even before the clock stopped.
The empty teacups were still there in the living room on a table in front of the stopped clock when Earl Giberson died.