"He must have been in agony, but he was cheerful. When released he grinned and asked for a cigarette. He was the bravest man I have ever met."
Those are the words of one of the 100 fireman who arrived near South Croydon Junction alongside 55 ambulances, on the densely-foggy morning of 24 October 1947. They may have found one victim brandishing a stiff upper lip, but what lay before them was a scene of utter carnage — and London's most disastrous train crash in a century.
"Several carriages disappeared in a tangle of steel frames," announces a grim British Pathe report, coated in an orchestral accompaniment more suited to a horror film. The emergency services, people from nearby houses — even a doctor in a smutted white coat clutching a bag — clambered over telescoped train carriages, hoping to pull victims from the mess.
It would soon turn out that 31 commuters and a train driver had died, many more injured.
The dense fog that had formed that morning may have been the backdrop to the tragedy, but when an electric passenger train from Tattenham Corner piled into the back of another such train from Haywards Heath, human error was to blame.
Horace Hillier was a young signalman, with just six months experience in the box, since returning from service, where he'd spent three years as a prisoner of war. Owning to a lack of visibility from the fog — and by overriding signal technology designed to stop trains from entering the same part of track — Hillier allowed the Tattenham train — travelling at about 45mph — onto the same tracks as the Haywards Heath train, which was only just picking up speed. Hillier had forgotten that the latter train was still there.
Says J. A. B. Hamilton in British Railway Accidents of the Twentieth Century:
The leading buffers of the Tattenham Corner train under-rode the rear ones of the Haywards Heath train, and the body of the leading coach was swept away, save for the last two compartments.
Both trains skidded along the line for 40 yards along the line. Some were instantly killed, others had climbed out and picked their way across the live rails, not realising the severity of the crash until they saw other carriages 'broken like matchsticks'.
In one of those horrible twists of irony, both trains had acquired notably more passengers, who'd crammed on while each trains was held in fog at the previous station. Considering that 200 people had been crammed into the two colliding coaches, it's a wonder the death toll wasn't significantly higher.
"It was all my fault," Hillier muttered to another signalman moments later, although he is recorded in the history books as an honourable man, who made one uncanny mistake.
Five years later, a rail tragedy with an even greater fatality roll came to London, with a collision at Harrow.
With thanks to the London Library, where this article was partly researched.