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This Week in History: Sleeping drunken man falls victim to prank

120 years ago, 1900

Taken directly from the Youngstown Vindicator: “Dead Drunk — An Unfortunate Was Placed in a Morgue to Sober Him Up. Treatment Cured Him.

“A drunken man, a very drunken man, went to sleep on South Phelps Street on Wednesday forenoon, but it is a sure bet that he will never do so again. He not only furnished material for the practical joker, but he got a Keeley cure treatment that is very likely to be the means of causing him to join a church and be a Prohibitionist hereafter.

“The man, whose name is for obvious reasons kept from the public, had gone to sleep on the stairway leading to the rooms over DeNormandie and Kay’s harness shop. He had been lying there for some time when Jim Kay spied him, covered in flies and exposed to the broiling rays of a noon day sun. Partly out of feeling for the unfortunate and also to satisfy his ever-present desire for joking, Jim concluded to look after the neglected individual, and here is what he did:

“Going to John Orr & Son’s morgue he secured a stretcher, and with the assistance of one of the attendants carried the drunken man to the cooling room in the dead house. The fellow was comfortably fixed in the room and the jokers retired to await developments.

“They did not have long to guess what the man would do, however, for in a very short time he awoke. As soon as his eyes were opened he saw that he was in a strange place. It then dawned upon him that he was in the morgue, and with a yell that would raise the dead, he bolted for the door. He was thoroughly sober in a minute, and left the undertaking rooms without saying a word to anyone about it. The expression on the man’s face as he hurried up the street was a study. He glanced over his shoulder every few steps, as if he expected someone to follow him. His face was ashy pale and he showed that he was thoroughly frightened by the sensation he had experienced when he awoke in the dead house. The crowd of people who had been put next to what was going on, could hardly hold their mirth back, and when the disciple of Bacchus came out of his sleep a sober man, they greeted him with a hearty laugh. This did not make the poor fellow any the more comfortable and if anything accelerated his speed up the street. It is dollars to pants’ buttons that the family of which the man is the head, will not be bothered with him coming home drunk again for many a day.

“Jim Kay says that he thinks this treatment is the proper thing, and he believes that if similar doses were given all who get loaded, the result would be marvelous.”

45 years ago, 1975

A horrific train derailment resulted in fires, explosions and the death of a North Side woman. The derailment happened at the Westlake’s Crossing area when several Erie Lackawanna freight cars toppled off the tracks. A tank car burst into flames and the entire area was filled with explosive fumes. When firefighters and police arrived, the area was strewn with railroad cars, passenger trucks, and even a camper, all of which were destroyed. Nearly 30 firemen spent hours pouring thousands of gallons of water and chemical foam on the burning tank car. One fireman, Harvey Dunn, was treated for exhaustion and three people near the scene were also taken to St. Elizabeth Hospital for treatment. Alberta Ceryak was killed when her van was crushed by a fallen rail car.

The devastating accident was witnessed by many onlookers who all shared the same story. Several cars and trucks were waiting at the crossing, behind the black and white crossing gate, as 20 rail cars passed by. It was then that eight cars jumped the south side of the track and the accident snowballed out of control. Thomas Hickman, a tractor-trailer driver, watched as a large conduit pipe flew at him from the back of a truck. “I saw one coming at me. It pushed me back and both of my windshields popped out. Fire broke out inside the cab,” Hickman recalled.

An onlooker said that the tank car was bouncing along the track as if it had no wheels before falling over and bursting into flames. William E. Flight, superintendent of the Erie Lackawanna’s Mahoning Division, said that the derailment likely began about a mile from the crash site. An investigator noted that the track was badly torn up along that stretch. Firefighters fought the blaze for hours that afternoon while flames slithered from an air vent at the top of the car. By late afternoon, a railroad crew brought in a crane and was finally able to get the tank car upright.

It was then that an unlikely but welcome guest arrived. Ronald Williams, industrial engineer for the General American Transportation Corp., was listening to his radio on his way home to Masury. He quickly got to the scene and took over command of the incident. Williams had designed similar tank cars and knew exactly what was needed. James McBride, assistant city fire chief, assumed he was called in by the railway company and had to laugh when he learned that his arrival was simply happenstance. It took hours before the scene was cleared.

• Compiled from the archives of the Youngstown Vindicator by Traci Manning, MVHS curator of education.

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