Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Another Day in the Life

A few hours after the Naperville crash, rescuers were still trying to free victims [above]. One of the first on the scene was Calista Wehrli.

An elderly lady died on Labor Day in Naperville, Illinois. Often, we see these obituaries - Mertz, Matilda: nee Schmidt, 92 - see the picture of an old face, and go right on to the sports page. For most people who see such an obituary, not much thought is given to what - exactly - Matilda did in her life.

Someone looking at Calista Wehrli's obituary might well have wondered the same thing. If they had asked the question about what she had done with her life, however, her story would have been worth listening to.

Even before April 26, 1946, Wehrli's life was remarkable. She graduated high school - where she had become a star baseball and basketball player - in Naperville in 1943. Unlike most 18-year olds at the time, she enlisted in the Marines Corps Women's Reserve in World War II. While in the Marines, she served most of her time organizing the sports programs for the 1,000 women and 10,000 men stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and at Parris Island, South Carolina.

On April 26, 1946, Wehrli was on leave from the military, helping her older sister hem a wedding dress. The fact that Wehrli was even in Naperville on that day was quite extraordinary: even a full year after the end of fighting in Europe, getting a leave from duty in the military was no easy feat. Wehrli, however, was able to get the leave, and as a result dozens of people would live to see April 27, 1946 - people who might not have done so if Wehrli had been back in the Carolinas.

As Wehrli helped her sister with the dress a few minutes after 12:30 pm, they both heard a loud boom. "I ran out of the house, and from the porch I said, 'Oh my God, there is a train sticking up in the air!'" she later recalled for reporters.

The 'boom' the Wehrli sisters had heard was a horrific rear-end collision of the Burlington railroad's westbound fast 'Exposition Flyer' train into an 'Advance Flyer' train. Because Wehrli had been taught to deal with disaster in the Marines, she instinctively and immediately ran toward the crash site.

The sight that Wehrli faced was gruesome. The Advance Flyer, carrying about 200 passengers in nine coach cars, was bound for Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. The Exposition Flyer, made up of eleven cars and also carrying about 200 persons, was headed for San Francisco. The collision occurred about two minutes after the Advance Flyer made an unscheduled stop in Naperville. The Exposition Flyer plowed into the rear of the stalled train.

Wehrli heard screams, and saw chaos and confusion. The loudest cries came from the rear coach of the Advance Flyer, so she turned her attention there. As she approached, it was evident that dozens of injured passengers were trapped, with no way to get out of the train on their own. Because many of the injuries were life-threatening, immediate medical attention was essential if they were to survive. Briefly taking her eye off the Advance Flyer, Wehrli witnessed others inside the Exposition Flyer train groping in attempts to escape from the mass of steel wreckage. Wehrli began getting the injured out of the trains.

The carnage was terrible. Eleven coaches were overturned or left the rails, 6 on the Advance Flyer and 5 on the Exposition Flyer. By the time all casualties had been accounted for, 47 were dead and another 125 were injured. Wehrli's ability to pull out many of those 125 victims, however, led them to end up as injured instead of dead.

Wehrli's heroism that day later got her an invitation to the White House to meet President Harry Truman. "She felt that was one of the major accomplishments of her entire life that she was able to be so helpful [on the day of the crash]," her niece and goddaughter Kimbeth Judge told the Chicago Tribune. "Whenever she described it, she would become emotional about it."

Indeed, on that April day in 1946, Wehrli made a difference. Her heroism saved countless lives. Of course, there was more to her life than her role in the crash. Wehrli went on to attend North Central College and Iowa State Teachers College, received a bachelor's degree in 1950, and a master's degree from UCLA in 1954. During the summers of 1947 and 1948, Wehrli also played baseball for the Borman Chryslerette's, a farm club for the Rockford Peaches, in a professional women's league. After college, she taught physical education in California at the high school and college levels for 34 years, retiring in 1985.

So, when Wehrli died of natural causes Monday at the age of 85, it was not "just" another elderly person gone. It was the end of a remarkable life - one that prolonged the lives of dozens of others on that April day 64 years ago.

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