Metro-East News

Crash that killed 12 still haunts Beckemeyer

Tragic deaths of 12 in Beckemeyer recalled

Belleville News-Democrat senior editor Joe Ostermeier recalls the 1976 tragedy in Beckemeyer when a train hit a pickup truck, killing 12 people including 11 children from 4 to 18.
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Belleville News-Democrat senior editor Joe Ostermeier recalls the 1976 tragedy in Beckemeyer when a train hit a pickup truck, killing 12 people including 11 children from 4 to 18.

This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.

On Feb. 7, 1976, at 6:50 p.m., Henry Lowe, 60, was driving 15 people, mostly children, to a roller skating party in Highland. He drove across an ungated railroad crossing in Beckemeyer.

Marcella Knapp and her husband, James Knapp, saw the accident. Marcella Knapp said she and her husband had just driven across the tracks and were heading north. Lowe’s truck was coming toward them and there was a train coming in the distance, traveling about 55 mph.

“That pickup isn’t going to make it,” Marcella Knapp remembers saying.

That pickup isn’t going to make it.

Marcella Knapp, witness

After all this time, she still doesn’t know why she thought that. Nothing indicated that there was going to be a collision.

“It wasn’t that the train was too close,” she said. “I just had a premonition. Whatever sense that makes.”

James Knapp stopped the car, the couple turned back toward the Scoville Street crossing and watched the unimaginable happen. The truck drove onto the tracks, where “the train split the pickup in half and carried them on,” Marcella Knapp said.

Within the span of a few moments, 12 people died. Six of the deceased were Lowe’s own grandchildren: Craig H. Lowe, 5, Tara R. Lowe, 4, Leroy G. Lowe, 15, Mark E. Lowe, 13, and Toby G. Hopper, 6, and Darla Hopper, 8, the children of Lowe’s daughter, Ruth Ann Hopper.

In addition to the Lowe family, Robert Moorleghen, 13, and his brother, Allan Moorleghen, 15, Bryan Forth, 13, Thomas J. Smith, 18, and Linda Lee McCabe, 13, also died.

Horrified, James Knapp ran from his car to the disaster. The truck was almost destroyed.

Marcella Knapp said her husband helped two of the children from the wreckage and brought them to their car, where she had the heat running. It was a cold February night. The shocked survivors remained with Marcella Knapp until their parents arrived.

“It was so heartbreaking to know, we learned later, how many lives were taken that night,” Marcella Knapp said. “My sympathy to all the families.”

Beckemeyer then, as now, was a small town with around 1,000 people, about 50 miles east of St. Louis. The majority of the people involved in the tragedy were either directly related or friends of the family.

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Coroner Dr. Jim Platt. He pronounced 12 dead. Bill DeMestri Bill DeMestri/Belleville News-Democrat

John Zieren, whose family owns the Zieren Funeral Home in Carlyle, transported victims from the accident site to the hospital.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. As was customary at that time, the local funeral home ran the ambulance service. Zieren had been around the funeral business his entire life but was only two years out of mortuary school when the crash happened.

“I’d never been involved in anything that horrific. Most people wouldn’t experience something like that in their whole career, especially with that number of young children,” he said.

He said 41 years has fogged his memory of the tragedy, but one moment hasn’t faded.

“One of the clearest things I remember was walking up and down the tracks, looking for more people,” Zieren said. The bodies had been scattered around the site by the force of the impact. Zieren made sure that no one was left behind.

One of the clearest things I remember was walking up and down the tracks, looking for more people.

John Zieren, Zieren Funeral Home

“I think I was in a state of shock,” Zieren said, adding that the only way he got through it was by focusing on what he had to do.

Gene Lowe Jr., 11, Brian Lowe, 10, Mark Forth, 9 and Robert McCabe Jr., 9, survived the disaster.

Brian Lowe, Forth and McCabe were taken to area hospitals where they eventually recovered from broken bones and other injuries. A story by Joe Ostermeier in the Feb. 11, 1976 edition of the Belleville News-Democrat described Gene Lowe as miraculously unhurt. He survived, without a scratch, the accident that killed so many others.

Ostermeier, now a senior editor at the BND, said he has not written a story of that magnitude since.

“This was before the internet, Facebook and Twitter. I will never forget heading out there and not knowing what we were going to find,” he said.

The newsroom had been alerted that there was a train accident with fatalities in Beckemeyer, but not the details.

Ostermeier and BND chief photographer Bill DeMestri drove to the site and discovered a child’s valentine amongst the debris on the railroad tracks.

“In my mind, that one valentine illustrated so many pieces of the story,” said Ostermeier. He said it brought together the facts that it was February, the number of children in the truck and how Beckemeyer was so interconnected by families and friendships.

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Child’s comb, Valentine’s heart - tragic reminders of the crash in Beckemeyer on Feb. 9, 1976. Bill DeMestri Bill DeMestri/Belleville News-Democrat

“I was a very young reporter,” Ostermeier said. “The enormity of the event didn’t hit me in the moment. Maybe it was my age or level of experience, but I look back at the clips and I’m astonished.”

The final National Transportation Safety Board Report about the crash cites the probable cause as “failure of the truck driver to perceive the approaching train and to stop his vehicle short of the tracks.” It goes on to say, “The lack of active grade crossing signals at the crossing probably contributed to his failure to perceive the train.”

Since that time, the public awareness and expectations of safety have changed dramatically. Though the idea of so many children riding unrestrained in a vehicle may seem strange now, Zieren said that it was common in the 1970s before seat-belt laws.

Edna Lowe had two sons in the truck: one who lived, and one who didn’t. She could not bring herself to speak with a reporter for this story. Her son Brian Lowe survived, but her son Mark Lowe was killed. Edna Lowe said it was too painful, particularly with the recent loss of her husband, Laverne Lowe, in March 2017.

Other survivors and family members of the accident victims declined to comment.

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Beckemeyer police patrolman Robert Phillips where the accident occurred in Feb. 1976. Bill DeMestri Bill DeMestri/Belleville News-Democrat

More than 1,400 residents of Beckemeyer and surrounding villages attended a group funeral at the Carlyle High School gym. It was held for Lowe and his grandchildren, Leroy Lowe, Tara Lowe, Craig Lowe, Mark Lowe, Darla Hopper and Toby Hopper. Separate services were held for Bryan Forth, Allen Moorleghen, Robert Moorleghen, Thomas Smith and Linda McCabe.

At the school, the grieving families sat on folding chairs at the front of the crowd. Seven gray, green and white caskets were arranged in a row.

Three ministers, Rev. E.D. Hediger, Rev. Victor Sulkowski and Brother Gordon Edgington, spoke eulogies to the crowd. “Let us remember: Life is short, death is sudden, but eternity is a long, long time,” said Edgington.

After the ceremony, the family left by a side door because of the number of people including television crews and journalists who had gathered outside the gym.

Seven hearses led a funeral procession of more than 200 cars. The dead were buried at three different cemeteries: St. Mary’s in Carlyle, Carlyle Cemetery and McKendree Chapel Cemetery in Keyesport.

A year later, Ostermeier’s editor asked him to call the families for a follow-up story. “I remember the anxiousness I felt,” Ostermeier said. “But I knew we had to try to do that story.”

Ostermeier recalled having to take a walk around the block to steel himself for the conversation.

The families’ enduring pain is evident in the story, published in February 1977.

“You will never recover, someone told me,” Norbert Moorleghen was quoted as saying. He was the father of Robert Moorleghen and Allen Moorleghen, both of whom died in the crash. “He said you learn to live with it, but you never get over it,” Norbert Moorleghen said.

Laverne Lowe, who was the husband of Edna Lowe and the father of Mark and Brian Lowe, was quoted in the article as saying, “You just try to put it behind you; it’s just too hard a thing to ever get used to.”

He also said he refused to use the Scoville Street crossing. “I quit using it,” he said. “I haven’t used that crossing since.”

In a recent interview, Marcella Knapp said she also tried to avoid the crossing after the accident. “It was too eerie,” she said. She knew others in the town who didn’t use that crossing, either — because the memories won’t let them.