ANGOLA, NY-- It was exactly a week before Christmas, 1867. It was eerily similar to the Clarence plane crash 142 years later. A train from Cleveland to Buffalo ran off the tracks in the Village of Angola in southern Erie County. The crash killed 50 people, most of them burned to death. Like the Clarence air disaster, the Angola Horror, as it was called in the press, led to reforms in safety regulations, but then the changes applied to the operation of passenger railroads and not airplanes.
"It was in 1867, right at this time of the year," says Angola Deputy Mayor Bill Houston. "Two train cars went off the Big Sister Bridge. The first one fell down on the ice on the creek and burned up something like 50 people."
The cars were made of wood. They were lit by kerosene lanterns and heated by coal-burning stoves. The first car fell into the creek gorge and became an inferno. "The people lasted maybe five, ten minutes," says Houston, "screaming and hollering and trying to get out, but the people who were trying to rescue the people just said, all of a sudden it was just quiet and they were all dead."
A second car also fell into the gorge, but all but one person were rescued. Nineteen or 20 of the victims were burned beyond recognition. A memorial service for all the victims was held at the Exchange Street train depot in Buffalo three days before Christmas.
Nineteen wooden boxes with the unidentified remains were taken to Forest Lawn Cemetery where they were buried. The spot is unmarked, no headstone, no memorial. "The railroad company said they were going to put a headstone up but they never did," says Forest Lawn volunteer Ed Dibble.
"Seems rather disrespectful," we suggest.
"Yes, it does," he says. "Nineteen people buried here."
The plane crash in Clarence in 2009 brought people to their feet. They rose up to demand reform in regional airline safety.
The Angola crash did much the same thing. Public outrage led to the banning of wooden passenger cars and open stoves, the development of air brakes, and standardization of track widths.
Missing among the casualties was a rich businessman from Cleveland. His name was John D. Rockefeller. Just by chance, he missed the train that morning. "Thank God I am unharmed," he wrote his wife. "Thankful, thankful, thankful.
Rockefeller went on to form the Standard Oil Company and drove his competitors out of business. But he was also a great philanthropist, and his grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, became governor of New York.
But consider this, says Bill Houston. "What about the 50 people that died, what might they have done?" he says.
The Village and the Evans Historical Society put up a sign near the site of the disaster recently to remind people what happened here. And to think about what might have been. "It was near christmas," says Bill Houston. "That disrupted so many families, and many of them could have been people that did all kinds of stuff in the world, but everything ended."
But many here in Angola hope the story is just beginning to be told, the story of the Angola Horror.