My 1945 Michigan Train Crash Story by Norma, Rittal, Grand Forks, ND

Originally ran in the Grand Forks Herald:  Written by Kevin Bohham

Norma Rittal recalls listening to lyrics, “Gonna take a Sentimental Journey,” on her car radio as she drove toward Grand Forks the evening of August 9, 1945.

The song on the radio was interrupted by a bulletin about a train accident at Michigan, N.D.

“Fatalities are high…there is no estimate as yet on the dead and injured,” the announcer said.

Rittal, who is retired from the railroad and now lives in Grand Forks, wrote about her experience that day and the days that followed in a book called, My Most Unbelievable True Story, published by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

She was a relief operator-telegrapher for the Great Northern Railway who was temporarily being assigned to duty in Lakota.  She was driving between Erhard, Minnesota, and Grand Forks when she heard the news.

“I boarded the train August 10th for Lakota, wishing there was a way to change my orders,” she wrote.  “When passengers and crew boarded at Grand Forks, the conversations were all about the wreck, the scenes of pandemonium, the grief, the heroics and the untiring efforts of workers trying to extricate the dead and injured from the wreckage.”

Arriving at Lakota, she checked the Western Union messages, which were piled high.

She and the depot agent walked past the temporary mortuary.

“Sheet-covered bodies lay on gurneys in the triple garage.  The curious milled around.”

She started her shift at 11 p.m.

“I was alone.  Eerie drafts moved the freight house door open and closed, revealing the pine boxes awaiting their final destinations.  Awful fear seized me.

“The company phone rang:  ‘Do you see the Extra East?’ the dispatcher in Grand Forks asked.  ‘No,” I ventured.  ‘Get out on that platform and look!” he spat out.  ‘I’m not going out of this locked office tonight, even if I lose my job,’ I stated. ‘There are 18 bodies from the wreck in the freight house.’ I knew I was probably in unrectifiable, serious trouble.

“’They won’t hurt you!’ His voice was more gentle.  ‘Copy this train order! You can wait ‘til you see that Extra coming from your inside window! Then get outside!’  He was the boss.”