May 25, 1950 – Chicago Green Hornet disaster kills 33

Tragedy struck the streets of Chicago on this day in 1950 when 33 people died in what was one of the deadliest public transportation disasters in US history to date. It was aboard one of Chicago Transit Authority’s electric “Green Hornet” trolleys in which the fates of those who passed away, along with 30 others who were gravely injured, were riding. Green Hornet driver Paul Manning was at the helm when he either ignored or did not see a flagman who was diverting trolleys away from a flooded underpass which made the tracks impassable due to heavy rains the night before. 

Trolleys moving southbound along 63rd street were being detoured to a turnaround track to avoid the flood. Manning was piloting his Green Hornet, one of the newest in the fleet, at a dangerously fast 35 mph when he blew by the flagman. Seconds later the trolley was thrown from its straight course to the diversion track, which guided the train directly into oncoming traffic. As the trolley went around the bend passengers were thrown from their seats and a moment later it was on course to run head on into a tanker truck with 8,000 gallons of fuel aboard. The imminent collision sent fireballs as high as three stories into the sky and enveloped the neighborhood, causing damage to nearby buildings and cars, but luckily nobody in the street was seriously injured. Those aboard the train were less fortunate.

The emergency exits on the trolleys proved insufficient, as there was only one door that could be opened from the inside, which was in the middle of the train car. A 14 year old girl was able to open it before it fused closed, allowing 30 people to crawl from the wreckage, all with severe burns. The windows all had metal bars across them, making them impossible to exit out of and the other doors were designed to open from the outside only or by a switch at the driver’s control. Both the driver of the trolley and the fuel truck, Mel Wilson, died in the collision, making the investigation difficult to conclude as to why Manning missed the flagman’s signal. Soon after the accident, streetcars began to be replaced with buses. The last run of Green Hornets occurred on June 21, 1958.

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