A month ago, a friend suggested I google Doodlebug Disaster.

“Doodlebug disaster?” I asked, “I had never heard of it.” In fact, I instantly imagined the Wooble-Bug, a character L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. I typed the words doodlebug disaster in my phone and asked absently, “Was that a nasty infestation or something?”

She said nothing for a beat, then shook her head and quietly repeated “Look it up.”

I did. I wish I hadn’t.

A similar passenger doodlebug today.

This happened in 1940. And yes, a doodlebug is a real bug. It was also the nickname of a multi-purpose railcar common in the early half of the 20th century. In 1940, when train transportation still formed the backbone of American industry and manufacturing, these “doodlebugs” were the perfect multi-purpose rail vehicles. They served as passenger trains, freight trains, utility engines, and even mail carriers.

The doodlebug’s small, self-propelled gasoline (later diesel) engines didn’t give them much speed or range, but doodlebugs filled in rail service gaps perfectly, especially in rural or suburban areas. Rail workers nicknamed these self-propelled railcars “doodlebugs” (west of Ohio, they were sometimes called “Hoodlebugs”) because of their slow speed and insect-like appearance.

A similar “Hippo” freight engine.

On July 31st, 1940, a doodlebug left Hudson, Ohio, with 43 passengers, headed for Akron, only 13 miles away. It was simple commuter run, one the crew had done hundreds of times before.

At the same time, a freight train had left Akron heading north on the same track. 73 freight cars, moved along by two Pennsylvania Railroad “Hippos.” These “Hippos” (which were really Class 1 steam locomotives) earned their nickname from their awkward handling, massive size, and raw power. Weighing in at about 200 tons each, these engines had from 3,000 to 6,000 horsepower, fed from fireboxes the size of bedrooms. Each devoured five tons of coal per hour.

Photo at the scene.

Each train chugged along that warm evening, oblivious of the other. Later, when inquests were held and fingers pointed, the three-man crew of the doodlebug would be held accountable. A freight train had right-of-way, and the doodlebug should have pulled into a siding to let it pass. It did not. Exactly WHY it did not is still debated, with answers ranging from gross negligence to carbon monoxide poisoning. The crew became criminals pariahs. How had they escaped while so many others had not?

Akron Beacon-Journal. 8/1/1940.

By the time the trains sighted one another, it was too late. Both threw on their brakes, which squealed and sparked like banshees from Hell, but it didn’t matter. Suddenly, the two trains, and the 46 lives between them, becomes a horrifically simple physics problem.

A doodlebug traveling south at 35 mph weighs 150,000 pounds. A freight train, traveling north on the same track at 40 mph, is composed of two engines weighing 400,000 pounds each AND 73 railcars averaging 100,000 lbs. each. Despite their braking, the trains collide with a combined speed of 55 mph at 5:58 PM in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, only a stone’s throw from the Cuyahoga River.

Freight train= 800,000 lbs + 8,100,000 lbs = 8,900,000 lbs.

Doodlebug train= 150,000 lbs.

9,050,000 lbs x 55 miles per hour = ?

Luckily, I stumbled across the Montana Department of Transportation’s website, where they offer a calculator for determining “crash force,” part of an effort to spread the importance of seatbelts. According to this calculator, the moment of collision on July 31st, 1940, produced a crash force of 497,750,000 pounds.

From Olga Fisher, 2005

Almost 500 million pounds. Five times the weight of the Titanic.

46 people rode the doodlebug that day: 43 passengers and three crew. 500 million pounds of force.

We reduce disasters like this to physics problems because our minds turn away from the sickening violence. It’s easier to grab a calculator and transform tragedy to numbers. It’s not apathy. It’s self-preservation. Our imaginations, if left to their own, don’t hesitate to turn our minds into nightmare cinemas.

From Jean Hudan, 2005

It does no good to imagine the freight train crumpling the doodlebug like an accordion. Or to imagine the freight engine plowing through the doodlebug’s fuel tank and dowsing the coach’s interior with flaming gasoline. Or to see three of the doodlebug’s crew jump through the flames and tumble into the grass.

Or to know that the medical examiner concluded¬†only nine passengers died instantly in the collision. The rest…

From Sarah Romane, 2005

The two trains came to rest about a quarter mile north of the impact point. It took firemen almost an hour to put out the flames. Ambulances swarmed in to hustle the injured to the nearest hospital, but only the three crew members that jumped needed medical care. Dozens of other medical professionals stood silently at the track’s edge. They could do nothing. The rest were already gone.

I typically end articles with a couple links for the curious readers and title it “Want to Know More?” I’m not doing that this time.

You don’t want to know anymore, folks. Not at all.