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posted: 7/1/2012 12:36 PM

Memories of 1946 train crash don't fade with time

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  • Ivan Umphress, of Streator, Ill., sits on the porch of his home. Umphress had his right arm amputated after surviving a Dec. 13, 1946, train accident in Mansfield, Ohio, while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army.

    Ivan Umphress, of Streator, Ill., sits on the porch of his home. Umphress had his right arm amputated after surviving a Dec. 13, 1946, train accident in Mansfield, Ohio, while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army.
    The Daily Times in Ottawa

The (Ottawa) Times

OTTAWA, Ill. -- For Ivan Umphress, Friday the 13th is a day to be reckoned with.

That was the day, in December 1946, the Streator man's life changed forever.

Umphress, who was from Wenona, had enlisted in the U.S. Army and had just completed basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., when he was on a train-- the Golden Triangle-- back to Chicago for a furlough before going to California to receive his assignment.

But he never made it to Chicago.

At 2:45 p.m. that morning, Umphress was sleeping in a car next to fellow army Private Alfred Wong, of Chicago, when something went terribly wrong.

A series of unlikely events resulted in a sudden crash.

Railroad workers were putting stoplights up for a train that was stopped on the tracks. Another train on the same tracks, headed in the same direction, didn't see the stoplights in time and hit the stopped train. The wreckage from that crash fell onto the line the Golden Triangle was traveling and Umphress' train was destroyed when it hit the wreckage on impact.

Umphress and Wong were seated in the first car behind the engine.

"I never knew a thing until they were ready to take me out of the train side window overhead and the man told me as soon as I get this other guy's feet off of your chest, I'll take you out,"Umphress, now 85, said from his home. "They got me out and Iwent down the ladder and got into the ambulance. It didn't register. It was dark."

Umphress and Wong were transported to Mansfield (Ohio) General Hospital with severe burns.

"I passed out when Igot to the hospital,"he said. "Igot into the hospital and I ended up in bed going to a room and I seen the room number over the door so Iknew that's where I was at."

Umphress heard a young man crying out in pain in a nearby room. It was Wong.

"I came to later and heard the boy suffering,"he said. "He was having big times getting air and I asked the nurse and she said his lungs were burnt and he probably wouldn't make it. He died about 9 the next morning."

Wong was one of at least 19 casualties and 100 injuries from that fateful night.

Meanwhile, Umphress would begin two years of hospitalizations for steam burns on his arms and back.

He was transported for a brief stay at Fort Hayes Station Hospital, prior to being transferred to a hospital in Valley Forge, Pa., where he stayed for a year. While there, he had two skin grafts on his thighs and a third on his arm. His right arm was so severely burned that he had extremely limited mobility in his hand.

In October 1948, he was granted a 30-day leave to return home and discuss with his family the possibility of removing his right arm. In November 1948, he returned to Battle Creek (Mich.) General Amputation Center, where his arm from the elbow down was amputated. He now wears a prosthesis.

Umphress received his honorable discharge papers from the U.S. Army on Dec. 9, 1948.

Upon returning home, Umphress married his first wife, Rose, and returned to Toluca High School to earn his diploma. He had dropped out prior to enlisting in the Army to work on the family farm.

After graduation, he worked at Anthony's Canning Factory and later did electrical work. He has three children and is married to his current wife, Vivian.

Ivan and Vivian say his prosthesis is a source of interest from young children, whose parents often shush them when they get curious and ask questions about it. While Umphress doesn't always tell the children exactly what happened, he does use it as an example to teach them better habits.

"We tell them `Let them ask questions,"'Vivian said. "My cousin's little 4-year old girl-- her mother was trying to get her to quit sucking her thumb. Ivan told her `My mom tried to get me to quit sucking my thumb and it came off.' She never sucked her thumb again."

After nearly a lifetime of living with an artificial arm, Umphress has adjusted well and smiles when asked how living without an arm has impacted his life, calling each day "just another day."

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