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Of Steel, Speed and Stephen Hill Disaster

Milestones Vol 30. No. 3

by Attorney Rex Downie


I gazed in frustrated fixation on the front wall of the classroom in the 33rd Street School on College Hill at the instrument of torment and bondage, the huge round clock, whose hands were pertinaciously set at 3:00 PM. The only respite from this disastrous situation was to allow my eyes to wander to the pursed-lip portrait of George Washington, his bust set in a rack of white clouds, which I only later understood to mean a placement of divinity, or very near to that estate.

Yet he, too, had his gaze fixed into eternity, or at least fixed at a place beyond the classroom of Vesta Allen, "She Who Must Be Obeyed," who ruled over the 5th grade, or perhaps it was the 6th grade. Yet on that dark spring day, she sat head bowed over a grade book, with just a hint of weariness on her face. Later, I read of Penrod Jashber, whose creator Booth Tarkington had put Penrod in the exact situation with clock and the President that I now attempt to describe and with such fidelity that I have a hard time now seperating the two.

Yet, there are wondrous escapes. None, however in my school career of twelve long years was better than the one that came on that afternoon. As the clock moved grudgingly past the top, the building shook, our desks with it. Miss Allen's head shot up, and a large protracted boom sounded around the brick building, rattling the wood framed windows severely.

The Japanese, I thought. They're attacking! But even my juvenile mind knew that there was six thousand miles of Pacific between them and us, and the Germans had been pushed out of Africa, so those options closed off, and I wondered what had occurred.

Shortly thereafter, for time had accelerated, Miss Allen rose, adjusted the dress that sheathed her generous form, and walked deliberately over to the doorway and pushed the button that rang the dismissal bell, for she was the High Epopt and Principal of the school.

Stuffing all my books and papers in the desk, 1 streaked past my classmates, down the broad wooden steps and launched onto fourth avenue, hung a right, and ran full tilt down fourth, for the big boom had come from the south- west. Although I didn't know the compass then, I had a firm knowledge of directions. I ran the eight blocks on the gentle downgrade of the nose of College Hill that protruded south into Beaver Falls, past Freddie Stohl's house, and entered the old Chinese Graveyard, where the ridge of College Hill noses down toward 24th Street.

On my right hand, down through the trees, I could see flames leaping high. Through them and clouds of smoke and steam, I could make out the forms of several fire trucks and columns of water spouting high and falling. The point-in-view I knew well from bicycling around the area, and it lay just at the place where Steffin Hill came under the P&LE tracks and turned right to enter Beaver Falls.

This was the fatal wreck at the bottom of Steffen Hill.

However, to get to the scene, I had to descend from the graveyard and cross Walnut Bottom Run, which was in Spring freshet. But with my destination fixed as it was, I didn't worry too much about explaining soggy feet to my mother, as I knew in a fire there was much water around, and that would be explanation enough.

I crossed about two hundred feet south of the site of the disaster, climbed though the guard rail and trotted up the road toward all of the excitement.

At least three fire trucks were parked at odd angles on the street, and I saw that one of the three houses that were located there, the northernmost, lay at an odd angle. The next two were engulfed in flame, and a semi-trailer lay on its side in the midst of it all. A couple of dozen people stood in clots around on the street, which I assume had been closed off. And a police officer was directing traffic coming down Steffin Hill to make a left onto the road leading north toward the Ingram-Richardson plant and West Mayfield.

My youthful and excited inquiries were sooner or later answered by busy adults and I discovered that a semi loaded with sheet steel had come down the hill (it's a mile long) and couldn't slow enough to make the right hand turn to the south, so jackknifed. At that time all of the steel haulers from Youngstown came cross-country and entered the valley down Steffin Hill, for no Turnpike or Rte. 51 existed then.

In it's jackknife, the truck had skidded into the three two story frame houses that stood there, destroying them all, the sheet steel acting as a huge machete to cut them off their foundations. Of course the gas plumbing was sheared through as well, and the electric lines shorted and sparked the gas into ignition, resulting in the inferno. The word on the street (not yet matured into a rumor) was that one of the property owners was in his back yard tending a garden and had both legs sheared off, killing him. But I can't recall seeing any bodies lying about covered on a stretch- er. Now enough time has passed to allow this to be a firmly established rumor. I do not recall seeing an ambulance.

I watched in fascination at this profound rupture of the adult world, which despite WWII usually flowed in calm demeanor around me. Then, as the sun descended over the ridge of Patterson Twp., I remembered the injunctions about dinner and trudged north on the Ing-Rich road, shoes squishing in water, now beyond doubt the excess flowage from firehoses. A warm coal fire glowed and hissed in the grate at 3328 College Ave, my home at that time. Oddly no mention of my wetness arose as I told of the great event.