wreck: A fateful New Year's Eve
lives claimed, 70 others injured in Pacific Limited tragedy
By CHARLES F. TRENTELMAN
Ogden Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN New Year's Eve, 1944.
The Pacific Limited was getting ready to leave Ogden for California and
Irene Pierce did not want to get on the train. She couldn't explain her
reluctance, but it went way beyond normal fear of travel, way beyond any
desire to stay home.
Cost was not the problem. Pierce's
husband worked for the Southern Pacific and she got to ride free. Still
fear, unreasoned and unfathomable, gnawed at her guts. Even getting into
the cab to the station was an emotional struggle.
"I didn't want to go," said Pierce,
who still lives in Ogden. "For some reason I didn't want to
But she did. Her husband had said "come
with me," on a short trip to Carlin, Nev., and back, so she went.
She put her daughter to bed in her mother's home and went down to Union
Station in Ogden. There, in the early morning hours, she looked at one
of the From 24 engines that was part of the two sections of the train
she was about to ride away on.
"And I was thinking, what a wicked
It was a warning from her gut she should have
The train she boarded was the first half of the
"Pacific Limited," westbound out of Union Station about 3
a.m., the morning of Dec. 31, 1944. The train was usually one piece but
had been split in two in Ogden, a separate engine pulling each
Seventeen miles west of Ogden, on the Lucin
Cutoff, with the Great Salt Lake on both sides, something happened. A
freight train slowed the first section. The night was foggy. Some said
the engineer of the second section didn't see signals warning him to
slow down. Whatever the cause, the second half of the
"Limited," rammed into the first, hitting the Pullman sleeping
car where Pierce was riding. The impact threw the car up into the air
where it landed on top of the engine. More than 50 people died and
another 70 or more were injured. Pierce was almost among the dead. But
for a fluke, and her own fear, she would have died, crushed or boiled
alive with her fellow passengers.
The accident came at the heights of Union
Station's busy period during World War II. Ogden was where trains going
north-to-south and east-to-west met, making it a critical juncture
during the War. Millions of soldiers heading across country traveled
through Ogden. As many as 100 trains a day carried everything from
freight to passengers to war supplies.
The Pacific Limited was no exception. The
first section was loaded with soldiers and civilians. The last car,
named the "Lake Cushman," was the car that Pierce boarded. The
porter waved her to a berth in the rear of the car, "and its funny,
I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that porter," she said, because
she did exactly the opposite of what he wanted.
"He said "Sit here,' and I said
"No, I want to go up there," and she pointed to a seat at the
very front of the car.
The train left Union Station about 3 a.m. and
Pierce couldn't get her fear to let go. While other passengers took off
clothes, made seats into beds and went to sleep, she sat and fretted.
When the accident occurred, she was still dressed.
"It was just a terrible noise. You
know, it's hard to explain it. Just a huge noise and a swaying, and I
thought "I'll be glad when it stops swaying,' and finally it
The engine from behind had rammed the car
she was in, splitting it and throwing it up on top of the wrecked
engine. It was a steam engine, and part of the noise Pierce could hear
was broken steam lines boiling alive those passengers the accident had
not killed outright.
An Ogden doctor who went to the
scene, L.S. Sycamore, was quoted in news stories. "It was a scene
of carnage when I reached the wreck," he said. "Heads, legs
and arms of dozens of victims were scattered about. The wooden cars were
smashed to pulp, or reduced to matches, so to speak."
Pierce said almost all the passengers in
the car she was in were killed. She crawled out on her stomach,
apparently uninjured. Outside, it was still foggy, gloomy and
Ogden, which received the word on the
final day of the year, found itself faced with a tragedy that would
overwhelm even modern emergency response services. Ambulances, doctors
and nurses had to be found. No cars could get to the scene, so all
rescue workers went on a special rescue train. Many of the injured, and
all the dead, had to be brought back on that same train before they
could be helped.
The city's mortuaries were swamped.
People who, only hours before, had seen relatives off on the train now
had the wearying task of going from mortuary to mortuary, identifying
the dead. Fortunately, the first train carried two military hospital
cars with three doctors and some nurses. Workers unhitched the wrecked
cars on the end of that train, loaded injured into the medical cars and
took them ahead to Nevada.
Pierce said she still doesn't completely
understand her own reaction. There she was, surrounded by unimaginable
horror, feeling totally calm, quiet, even relieved. Even her husband,
who was working in one of the cars ahead of her, survived the wreck.