The weather couldn’t have been better for travel. As Charlie made his way home by train, neither he nor his fellow passengers had any clue that they were headed toward an unspeakable tragedy that would go down in history as the terrible Stapleton rail crash.
It was June 9, 1865. Passengers arriving from across the English Channel boarded the train at Folkestone, England. From there, the trip to London should have been routine, and it would have been except for two big mistakes.
The mistakes centered around the Beult viaduct at Kent. For several weeks, workers had been replacing the wood beams under the track. They timed their repairs so they would not delay any trains. On this day, however, the foreman misread the train schedule. Because of this fateful error, the train in which Charlie was a passenger was racing toward a 42-foot gap in the rails.
The second error was also the fault of the foreman. Regulations required a man with a red flag to be positioned 1,000 yards (910 meters) from a potential railway hazard. A signal worker was on duty that day, but because no one expected any traffic, he was positioned just 554 yards (507 meters) from the hazard.
By the time the train’s conductor saw the red flag, it was too late to stop the disaster. The train was moving at 50 mph (80 km/h) when the conductor hit the brakes and reversed the engine. Even so, it was still going 30 mph (48 km/h) when it reached the gap. The locomotive, tender, van, and leading second-class carriage flew across the opening, landing on the other side of the river bed.
The next car was the first-class carriage. It was from there that Charlie experienced the confusing and terrifying moments when time seemed to stand still as the train jolted, screeched, lurched, and rocked. After what seemed to be an eternity, Charlie’s section of the train stopped.
At least, it seemed to have stopped. It soon became clear that it was teetering back and forth. The first-class carriage was balanced precariously half on and half off the edge of the viaduct. Charlie tried to calm the panicked passengers and helped them slowly ease their way toward an open window where they crawled out to safety.
Only after getting out of the train did Charlie begin to grasp the true horror of the situation. The next seven cars had derailed and were in the muddy river bed. All around him, he could hear the cries of the injured, frightened, and desperate passengers and crew.
Charlie became a hero that day. He did his best to help trapped passengers escape. He then offered assistance to the injured and the dying. For hours after that, he worked to pull dead, twisted bodies from the tangled wreckage of the train.
In all, the Stapleton rail crash took the lives of ten people, left forty people wounded, and caused unimaginable mental trauma for all of the passengers, crew, and rescue workers who were there.
Charlie was haunted by the Stapleton disaster for the rest of his life. He had endless nightmares — most of which featured his fellow passengers who did not survive. His dreams were plagued by the faces of the victims and the sounds of their screams of anguish and despair.
For the rest of his life, Charlie was a nervous traveler. Panic seized him whenever he had to travel by rail and he avoided it if at all possible.
Writing to a friend about the disaster, he said,
The scene was so affecting when I helped in getting out the wounded and dead, that for a little while afterwards I felt shaken by the remembrance of it. But I had no personal injury whatsoever. My watch (which is curious) was more sensitive, physically, than I; for it was some few minutes “slow” for some few weeks afterwards.
Except that I cannot yet travel on a railway, at great speed, without having a disagreeable impression – against all reason – that the carriage is turning on one side, I have not the least inconvenience left.
Those feelings of dread and the horrible dreams did not go away. Charlie was haunted by them until the last day of his life. Ironically, that last day was June 9, 1870 — the 5th anniversary of the Stapleton rail crash.
As you may have guessed by the fact that he was traveling as a first-class passenger, Charlie was a man of means. His involvement in the crash as a passenger and as a rescuer was one more reason why the Stapleton disaster captured the public’s attention. Charlie was a celebrity who made a living by telling stories. His vivid verbal recreation of the disaster helped his audiences feel as if they were there, witnessing the tragic event.
Yes, Charlie was a storyteller. You are probably familiar with one of his most famous stories. It is about a miser who, at Christmas, was haunted by three ghosts who ultimately changed the man’s life.
After the accident, Charlie was also a man who was haunted. It wasn’t by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Charles Dickens, the hero of the Stapleton rail crash, spent the rest of his days haunted by the ghostly memories of those whom he failed to save.
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