TRAGEDY ON THE TRACKS: 3 Kingston firefighters died in collision with train May 15, 1937
KINGSTON, N.Y. — A windswept, driving rain fell in the early morning hours of a May 15, 1937, as four city firefighters riding on a fire truck returned to headquarters.
They had just finished battling a three-alarm blaze on Downs Street that had lit the sky around Midtown.
Three of those firefighters — Ferrill Finkle, Preston DeWitt, and Peter Carey — wound up losing their lives, deaths that would rock the department’s sensibilities.
The three did not die fighting a fire, but were victims of a crash now remembered 75 years later.
Current Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Platte said the department will issue a remembrance message over radios on Tuesday at noon, the usual time a daily tone test is done and on the date the firefighters were killed.
“It is dangerous to go to calls, with lights and sirens, and this happened on the way back to the station,” Platte said.
A historical account drawn up by fire department historian Bernie Matthews and newspaper clippings he has put together include details of the tragic accident.
It was just after 2 a.m. on May 15, 1937, when the firefighters — all members of Engine Co. 1 — headed back from the Downs Street fire to headquarters.
They were riding in a fire engine, uncovered, and approached grade-level railroad tracks that crossed Broadway where a railroad overpass now crosses above the street.
“Coming down Broadway in a driving rainstorm with their helmets on backwards to keep water from their faces, Fireman Finkle did not see or hear the approaching train or down gates,” Matthews’ account says. Continued...
There were lanterns on the gate, but they were obscured because of the weather.
“The apparatus crashed through the gate, striking the baggage car of the northbound passenger train,” Matthews said.
A fourth firefighter, J. Richard Smith, was injured but survived, while the three others died.
Finkle and Smith were dragged up the tracks for 125 feet. Parts of the fire engine were found scattered along the tracks for 200 feet.
“The left headlight remained lit after the accident,” Matthews said.
All four firefighters were rushed to hospitals, but Carey and DeWitt died that day.
Finkle was rushed to the hospital by taxi.
“Although he showed initial signs of improvement, he succumbed to corrective surgeries of his injuries that September,” according to Matthews’ account.
An inquest into the accident was done by the Ulster County Coroner’s Office. It found that “the death of Firemen Carey and DeWitt were not due to the culpable or criminal negligence, as the driver of the fire truck, Fireman Finkle, was proceeding through a heavy rain without the protection of a windshield on the apparatus,” according to Matthews’ account.
Fifteen years after the accident, the Broadway underpass was completed, replacing the grade crossing where the fatal crash took place.
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