Eight Lives Remembered: Sixty years after Iowa's most tragic family accident

October 25, 1956. One of the worst tragedies known to hit an Iowa family on a single day. A day that so many locals can recall clearly.

                   Ruth Hammes was getting her children ready for school while her husband Richard went to go pick corn in the field. The morning started like any normal day, according to the family history articles. Richard and his two sons had been up that morning doing their chores while Ruth prepared breakfast.

                  In Washington, just thirty miles east of the family, Rock Island engineer George West and his crew were getting ready to get diesel train No. 429 going towards Des Moines.

                  Ruth got all eight of her children ready for the day. Ronnie and Donnie, 9 year old twins; Karen, 8; Linda, 7; Gary, 6; Rosemary, 3; and Vicky and Ricky, 1 year old twins.  The five older children attended Plank township #9 rural school and needed to be in class at 9 a.m. Due to the fact that her husband was in the field, Ruth piled the three younger children into the 1953 Plymouth and started out to the north towards the school on a gravel road.                  

                  At the same time the engine left Keota, traveling toward the railroad crossing. Known for its obscured vision, the crossing was known as dangerous, due to the fact that the tracks came through a deep cut in the hills.                  

                  According to George Mills, in the book One Armed Bandits, West was riding on the right side of the engine while the fireman on the crew, Corwin Bonta, was on the left. West sounded all of the warning signals but says his vision was blocked on the final 200 feet before the crossing. However; when Bonta saw the vehicle they were within 100 feet of the car and even though he called for the engineer to apply the brakes, it was too late, and the train hit the vehicle, dragging it over 700 feet down the track before coming to a stop.

                  The time was 8:53 a.m. and seven of the eight children were pronounced dead at the scene, with Ronnie passing away just 90 minutes later at the Sigourney hospital, where he had been transported along with Ruth.

                  Ruth was in a state of shock, but merely suffered bad bruising and cuts. She told that one of the children had hollered and she had slammed on her brakes in vain. She often recalled that moment and what would have been had she not slammed on her brakes at that moment, stopping on the tracks.

                  The book later goes on to state that Richard had quit working and a neighbor had come to tell him of the accident. When he arrived, he saw his wife sitting on the ground, holding the two youngest children, of which neither was breathing. Over the course of the next few hours he could not get over the horror of seeing his children in the tangled metal, Ronnie dying at the hospital, or his injured wife. When he walked around the empty nine-bedroom house that normally was filled with voices, there was nothing but silence. This was a silence that family members claim he never fully overcame.

                  The caskets were taken that Saturday morning to S.s Peter and Paul church, as 32 children served as honorary pallbearers, while relatives carried the caskets. Ruth, unable to attend the funeral, stayed home with Mrs. Leo Hammes.

                  With over 2,470 at the funeral visitation, the church was filled with over 1,000 people as the eight white caskets were then carried to the graveside being buried side by side. A statue still stands today to represent the sorrow of that fall day.

                  Being a combat engineer in the Army in Europe in World War II, Richard had always wished for a large family, coming from a family of 14 children himself. After the funeral, there was a silence that Richard and Ruth could not overcome. On January 15, 1958, Ruth gave birth to Myron, just 15 months after the train wreck bringing a sense of family and love back into the home. In 1960, while pregnant, Ruth passed away from heart failure and the child did not survive.

                  Richard married again, but that marriage ended in a divorce. He continued on with a career of buying furs and farming, but some say he felt incomplete without Ruth and his other children.

                  In 1972, at the age of 61, Richard’s body was found near the Skunk River. The cause of death was a gunshot wound believed to be self- inflicted. Myron went to live with his Aunt Viola Conklin.

                  Although sixty years have passed since one of the most tragic accidents in Iowa history, many can still recall the events of that day and think of the Richard Hammes family every time they hear a train whistle.


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