Jerry Davich: ‘The worst day in Lake Station’s history’
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org September 8, 2012 6:40PM
R.O. Johnson (left) and Roberta "Bobbee" Miller Clawson hold hands as they talk in Johnson's Lake Station, Ind. home Saturday September 1, 2012. Miller Clawson drove from her home in Toledo, Ohio to reconnect with Johnson who rescued her from the wreckage of a church bus hit by a train when she was twelve years old in 1971. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 10, 2012 6:22AM
Roberta Miller saw the speeding Penn Central train coming straight at her church bus as it crawled across the railroad tracks.
The 12-year-old girl, whose nickname was Bobbee, closed her eyes shut, grabbed the seat in front of her, and prayed. When she opened her eyes a few seconds later, her life would be forever and tragically changed.
Her older sister, 17-year-old Elizabeth Miller, didn’t see the oncoming train. She was thrown from the church bus. Her lifeless body was found later in between the railroad tracks.
Three other girls were killed — Becky Tucker, 13 (who died later that day), Donna Breckman, 13, and Merralee Meler, 9, who died on her birthday. Six other kids and the bus driver were injured in the crash just a few blocks from their church, First Baptist Church of East Gary (now Lake Station).
The date: Oct. 31, 1971.
“It happened at 9:35 in the morning that day and we were exchanging Halloween candy and talking about our costumes from the night before,” recalled Bobbee Miller Clawson, who’s now 53. “I’ll never forget it. There was no time to even yell.”
Clawson suffered four fractured vertebra and a severe concussion. Yet she was able to wander around the bus and help other youngsters as emergency personnel arrived roughly a half hour later.
“I stayed conscious through it all,” she said.
One of the first responders was an ambulance driver named R.O. Johnson, a World War II veteran who drove an ambulance for Brady Funeral Home. Back then, such ambulance drivers were often the first responders, sometimes before police and firefighters.
Johnson, who was 47 at the time, used a crowbar to pry open the back door of the bus to rescue the children who were still alive. Other responders eventually joined him, including men who ran to the scene from the church.
“The first thing I always did was look for moving bodies,” said Johnson, who responded to hundreds of horrific calls through the years involving death, injuries and nightmarish crime scenes. “If I saw someone wiggling around, I’d get ’em out first.”
Johnson found Bobbee and helped her out of the bus. He carried her in his arms into his ambulance’s front seat and held her hand on the drive to Mercy Hospital in Gary. Two other child survivors laid in the back of the ambulance.
“Do you know where you’re going?” another ambulance driver asked Johnson on the way to the hospital.
Even though the train screeched to a stop a quarter-mile down the tracks, blocking another access road, Johnson knew every short-cut in and out of town. Having lived in East Gary/Lake Station since he was 8, Johnson knew the town like the back of his yard.
“Just follow me,” Johnson told the other driver as he sped off.
‘No one seemed to notice’
Bobbee, one of eight siblings, spent a week in the hospital. Her parents were later told that she would not live to age 30. If she did, she would probably be in a wheelchair.
“My parents had to deal with burying my sister and worry whether or not I was ever going to be the same,” she told me.
During her recovery, it was the family’s doctor, not her parents, who told her that her big sister died in the crash.
“At that time, there was no such thing as grief counselors or benefits to help the families with their day-to-day needs,” Bobbee said. “Everything was played close to the vest, meaning you took care of your own, on your own. The community wasn’t involved.”
Back then, she added, it was a sign of weakness if a family saw a therapist.
“We were all left to our own devices,” she said. “Some chose alcohol and others worse, but no one seemed to notice or chose not to care.”
After the girls’ funerals, one father came home and told his family not to utter another word about the crash. It led him to a life of rage, denial and alcoholism.
In another house, a girl’s parents were more open about the tragedy.
“They accepted this sad fate which beset their family and learned to hug each other a bit stronger as time went by,” explained Lake Station resident Fred Newman, who’s been compiling and chronicling the history of the crash since 2008.
Since then, he’s been trying to understand how a small town could just walk away from that day, “as if it never happened,” he told me.
“The worst day in Lake Station’s history,” Newman said flatly.
With a friend, he vowed to find the crash survivors, locate their families and, more importantly, build a memorial to honor those four dead girls.
“Why hasn’t anything ever been done to remember them?” he wondered.
He joined Facebook, posted the original Post-Tribune story and photo of the crash, and started tracking down survivors, such as Bobbee Clawson.
“It took a while to gain their confidence and convince them we were not a scam,” Newman said.
Decades peeled away
The Post-Tribune headline from Nov. 1, 1971, states, “Probe train-bus crash,” with the names listed of the four girls who died in the crash. A later story told of an investigation into any wrongdoing by the train engineer, but nothing ever came from it.
“It was an overgrown crossing with no lights or bells, the train was speeding, and Indiana law back then did not require church buses to stop at railroad crossings,” Newman noted.
The bus driver, Joseph Spanos of Gary, 34 at the time, suffered broken legs and a broken pelvis. He has since died, I’m told.
“Nobody ever blamed him, but he didn’t last long at the church,” Bobbee said. “My parents treated what happened as just a tragic accident. They didn’t play the blame game.”
It was a different time, a different era, a different mentality toward “accidents,” when lawsuits didn’t get tossed around like unwrapped candy into trick-or-treat pillowcases.
Newman discovered other intriguing details about the crash, such as about two men who served time in prison for murder, based on money gained through insurance settlements with the railroad company. And that one of the killed girls, Merralee Meler, loved to align plastic horses along her bedroom window sill every morning.
“When the sun rose, it reflected off of the shiny steel railroad tracks across the street from her room,” Newman said. “She moved them around until the reflections hit a pattern on her ceiling, which she liked.”
On Oct. 31, 1971, she waved goodbye to her adopted parents, playfully hopped on the bus, and within 60 seconds she was killed by that train, which finally stopped within 200 yards from her bedroom window.
Early that morning, our region fell back into daylight saving time but some church members forgot to adjust their clocks the night before. Because of that, their kids missed the church bus that morning.
Also, East Gary held a mayoral election two days after the crash.
“One of the candidates had gained a reputation in town for openly protesting the lack of crossing gates at the town’s six railroad crossings,” Newman said.
He lost the election.
‘I am forever grateful’
The years peeled away, then the decades. Ten years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. Bobbee’s life took her to Toledo, Ohio, where she has lived for the past 28 years.
Then, last year, she learned about Newman’s efforts, the plans for a memorial and details about her “hero” that day, R.O. Johnson, who’s now 89. She wrote him a thank-you letter.
“You held my hand that day, but I took a piece of your heart,” she wrote on the envelope. Other thank-you cards followed: “You saved my life on Oct. 31, 1971. I am forever grateful.”
Johnson called Bobbee and they promised to someday meet.
Someday finally arrived on a recent Saturday morning. Bobbee visited her long-lost hero at his Lake Station home. I popped in to learn about their long-lost story.
When I arrived, Bobbee sat cross-legged on the living room floor next to Johnson, who uses oxygen and a hearing aid. She held his hand, again, just like she did on the ambulance ride to the hospital. This time, she didn’t have to let go.
“Do you remember that day?” she asked Johnson, wiping tears from her eyes.
“You never forget,” he replied, breaking into emotion.
Johnson’s spitfire of a wife, Betty, explained further: “Halloween is a sad day for us because of that day in 1971 and also because we had a son who died on Halloween.”
“Look at me now,” she told Johnson. “I wasn’t supposed to live to 30 but now I’m 53, fat and sassy.”
Johnson, who just got out of the hospital, could only smile.
Newman, Bobbee, and other survivors and volunteers are now working on a permanent memorial to honor those four girls. It’s already designed and a sculptor is working on it, all paid for by anonymous donors.
“Our little town has redeveloped an overgrown lake into a beautiful recreational sight in the last few years,” Newman noted. “As well as a fine new library, and award-winning eco-friendly city hall complex, all within sight of where the accident happened.”
“When the memorial is complete, we hope to place it in one of those places.”
Then Bobbee said something that surely echoes the distant voices of her big sister and the three other girls who lost their lives that tragic day.
“It’s been a long time coming.”
For more on this issue, listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show this Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.thelakeshorefm.com.