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Chesterton Tribune, Thursday, 17 January, 1924


Valparaiso, Ind., Jan. 10--Two men dead and one injured is the toll exacted last evening at 6:18 o'clock when the boiler of engine 515, pulling a special freight train on the Nickel Plate railroad, exploded as it was passing the local depot. The dead are:

A. G. Heppner, 24, fireman, Stoney Island, Ill.

W. M. Passwater, 35, head brakeman, Stoney Island, Ill.

The injured man is Ralph O. Scherer, 38, engineer, of Stoney Island, Ill. Scherer, while badly burned, is given a fighting chance for recovery by the attending doctors.

Neither Heppner nor Passwater was killed outright. Heppner was the worst injured of the trio. He suffered a bad skull fracture, and all of the skin burned from the upper part of his body. Attending physicians marvelled that the man lived as long as he did. He died at 9:35 o'clock last night. Passwater passed away at 8:35 o'clock this morning from his injuries.

All the injured were taken to the Christian hospital following the explosion. Scherer was taken to the Edward Coash home and given medical treatment before his removal to the hospital.

The train was west bound, heading into Chicago, and the men killed and injured were members of a special crew that was handling the train. According to trainmen, who had charge of the train from Ft. Wayne to Knox, where they were relieved by the crew from Stoney Island, trouble was experienced with the engine from the very start of the trip. In the friehgt train, the eighth car from the engine, it was learned today, carried a large shipment of dynamite. All the other cars, with the exception of six empties, carried various kinds of merchandise.

The remains of Heppner were removed to the Stinchfield-Fehrman undertaking parlors, and will be taken by automobile to his home in Stoney Island this afternoon. The body of Passwater was removed to the C. W. Bartholomew & Son undertaking establishment. Dr. H. O. Seipel, cororner [sic] of Porter county, stated this morning that the inquest would be deferred pending the outcome of the injuries to Scherer.

The cause of the explosion has not been determined. Various reasons have been advanced by trainmen and officials of the railroad. It is believed the water in the boiler was low and the explosion was caused by forcing water into the overheated boiler.

At the time of the explostion, the train was moving past the station at a speed of between 12 and 14 miles per hour. The three men injured were riding in the cab. Engineer Scherer and Brakeman Passwater were on the right side of the cab leaning out of the window to catch a train order. Heppner, the fireman, was on the other side of the cab. The explosion came without warning and the men were blown clear of the wreckage. Heppner was picked up in a yard sixty feet from the scene of the explosion. Scherer and Passwater were both found north of the tracks at about the same distance.

At the exact spot where the full force of the explosion was manifest was a great hole about ten feet deep and large enough to bury a good sixed car. The first freight car in the train was turned around and rammed against the front of the depot, badly demolishing that structure. Fully 12 cars were derailed by the impact, tearing up the rails and twisting and bending them in all manner of shapes.

The engine, shorn of its boiler and upper parts, with only the driving wheels and truck to reveal its identity, halted at the crossing at the Franklin avenue terminus. The huge boiler lay on its side south of the tracks, a short distance back. It had been turned completely around by the explosion. The cab of the engine was rent into many pieces and was fully 300 feet from the wrecked engine.

When persons living in the vicinity of the depot rushed to the aid of the injured men, Scherer, the engineer, was crawling around in the mud of the street. His clothes were a mass of shreds, with great portions of his attired blown away by the terrific blast. He was taken to the Coash home nearby. At first he was dazed and unable to talk, but later told persons who he was and where he lived. He was unable to account for the explosion.

Carroll White, operator, was on duty at the station when the accident occurred. He was waiting on the outside with a train order on a hoop to give to the engineer. He was an eye-witness of the explosion and lost no time in running from the onrushing train. Pieces of hot metal fell around him, but he was unhurt. Mr. White served with the American forces in France, but he saw nothing to eclipse the affair of that night.

Another man who thought hell was being turned loose was Charles Cirrincione, living in a house owned by D. E. Kelly, just across from the explosion. Cirrincione was standing at a cook stove when a piece of hot iron from the engine came through a window and narrowly missed him. Big pieces of iron struck the home and riddled the entire front. The building was fired and the blaze was extinguished by the fire department. One large piece of iron entered an upper bedroom and crushed an iron bed like it was an egg shell.

A large shed, south of the tracks, owned by Modest Coash, was struck by a hot piece of molten metal and set on fire. The firemen were unable to get at this structure, owing to the wreckage blocking the tracks, and it was entirely destroyed.

A piece of metal was hurled through a window at the John Rosenberger home, falling on a bed and setting the bed clothes afire. Members of the family carried the flaming mattress into the street.

The depot was badly damaged in the front by one of the box cars which sideswiped it. The throttle of the engine was propelled through the side of the waiting room of the depot, taking one of the windows with it. Luckily, no one was in this part of the building at the time.

W. J. Depew, engineer, S. C. Baker, fireman, and F. J. Helm, brakeman, all of Fort Wayne, were riding in the caboose. Depew and Baker had piloted the train from Ft. Wayne and were relieved at Knox by Scherer and Heppner. W. G. Robertson, of Stoney Island, was conductor of the ill-fated train. He was riding in an extra dead engine about fifteen car lengths behind.

The shock of the explosion was felt in every part of Valparaiso, and especially on College Hill. Students thought at first that an earthquake had come.

John Brovlak, section foreman, residing at South Wanatah, who was assisting in the work of clearing up the wreckage, was added to the list of injured this morning. While engaged in the work, a damaged rail fell on his right foot as it was being lowered by a crane. The member was badly crushed.

To Examine Locomotive.
Valparaiso, Ind., January 12.--An examination of the boiler of Engine 515, which exploded in front of the Nickel Plate station, Wednesday night, resulting in the death of two men and the serious injury of another, will be made by federal and state representatives. Two men connected with the interstate commerce commission and a state safety inspector arrived here yesterday and ordered the wrecked engine taken to Stony Island, Ill., where the examination will be made.
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