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Bristol schools face difficult financial decisions

Bristol Borough School District’s financial problems are snowballing year after year, and a long-term plan is needed to avoid always being in survival mode, school board President Ralph DiGuiseppe III said.

Thursday night, the nine-board member will have the difficult task of figuring out the best way to close an $898,968 deficit in the 2012-13 school year.

Throw in the mix that the teachers’ contract is up in August, and the outcome could lead to more expenses and cuts for the small district. Labor negotiations are ongoing.

The district has based its 2012-2013 proposed budget figures on the current contract. For now, the preliminary budget includes an increase in salary expenditures of about $277,000. The spending plan also reflects a 9 percent increase for health insurance of $185,000. The retirement contribution rate has also gone up from 8.65 percent to 12.36, so the district will have to fork out $188,000.

There’s very little left to cut from the budget without getting the Department of Education involved, officials said.

To read the full story, click here.

Bristol school board sees tough times ahead

The school board in Bristol will have to decide whether to go through with suggested program cuts to balance the 2012-13 school year budget.

However, the more difficult task officials face in the near future is formulating a long-term plan for the financially struggling district. That plan, according to school board President Ralph DiGuiseppe III, could include major changes such as consolidating the district.

“It’s continually getting worse and worse from a budget standpoint,” he said at Thursday night’s budget meeting. “We keep saying we raised taxes by 30 mills in two years, we’ve cut everything out of our educational system that may or may not have been considered fluff… We are down to a bare bones educational environment…

“We sat here last year, we took the heat on music, art, the specials…It’s affecting the (smaller) districts first, but all districts statewide are experiencing this budget crisis. It’s just worse forBristolbecause of our size.”

The future of public education in the state soon could involve condensing smaller districts and such a move could includeBristol, DiGuiseppe said.

But for the immediate future, the school district faces an $898,968 deficit in the 2012-13 school year.

To help balance the budget, directors have several curtailment options, including eliminating programs, which would lead to cutting staff. Those cuts may include the dean of students, pupil service director, one psychologist, middle school reading and reducing Title I class size and going part-time kindergarten, which would result in a cut of about $664,000, reducing the district gap to $164,000.

To ready the full story, click here.

Redevelopment going against blight

Bristol, with help from the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority, will tackle blighted residential and business properties in the borough.

Representatives of the borough and six other municipalities will sit on the authority’s new strategic planning committee charged with identifying blighted and underused properties in the county. The committee also will outline a seven-year plan for the future of those plots.

The 14-member committee will draft a priority list of parcels and start the procedures necessary to repurpose those structures, so they’re shovel-ready when the authority gets federal, state or county funds to deal with them, Bob White, executive director of the authority, said this week at Bristol’s work session.

The participating municipalities are also part of the state’s Enterprise Zone program, a business development tool designed to help local financial growth and job creation through tax breaks and other incentives. The authority leads the county’s program.

In addition to Bristol, Bensalem,BristolTownship, Falls, Morrisville and Tullytown are participating. They total 16 square miles and account for nearly one-third of the county’s labor force. Tiny Penndel also is participating.

White, who would like to start committee meetings by June, said his goal is to complete at least one redevelopment project in each community by 2018, when the Enterprise Zone program expires.

To ready the full story, click here.

Dems say SEPTA should stay out of local politics

 Newtown Democratic council candidates are accusing SEPTA board Chairman Pat Deon and the agency’s general manager, Joseph Casey, of improperly meddling in borough politics regarding use of a former train station parking lot.

Their involvement “is yet another example of public funds and resources being used to benefit political candidates. Documents show that Republican council candidate Paul Salvatore went directly to the chairman of SEPTA, a prominent Newtown Republican businessman, with Democratic literature, seeking his help to counter it. And he got it, with the SEPTA general manager directed to send a letter to Newtown Borough attacking the Democratic campaign piece,” said Mike Seller, who is up for re-election Tuesday.

Seller continued: “This type of failure to honor the firewall between government and politics can go to the extreme, as is being played out right now in Doylestown with the Register of Wills prosecutions. While SEPTA’s actions here are not of that magnitude, they are disturbing in their own right. As for the local Republican council candidates themselves, they have seen no need to obey the law, even when it comes to their own campaign signs.”

The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching Deon or Casey for comment through SEPTA’s media relations office. However, the agency’s director of media relations, Jerri Williams, said, “When concerns, be they legitimate or unfounded, are brought to our attention, the authority has a responsibility to review the issues and provide a timely and accurate response.”

The dispute began in August when the Republican challengers distributed campaign literature that highlighted four goals, one of which was a plan to convert SEPTA’s closed train station parking lot in the borough atPenn StreetandSouth Lincoln Avenueinto basketball and tennis courts.

To ready the full story, click here.

Business owners discover a vault to history

Business owners James and John Cain hit the historical jackpot as they were renovating an old bank to make way for a brew house in Yardley.

The Cains are leasing the 120-year-old Yardley National Bank building and turning it into the Vault Brewing Co. to open later this year. Throughout the decades, the building has functioned as a variety of banks, the last a Bank of America.

Inside an attic area above one of two vaults, the Cains found thousands of papers belonging to the original bank including the bank’s articles of association, certificate of organization and oath of directors, all dated Oct. 25, 1889, and other documents up to 1903.

“The Yardley Historical Association doesn’t have a lot of information about Yardley National Bank, so the find is a real treasure, particularly the papers concerning the formation of the bank and the ornate YNB logo,” Susan Taylor, a member of the association, said this week.

Taylorbelieves the bank opened its doors in 1890, but doesn’t know when it closed.

A few weeks ago, James Cain, 24, was scoping out the building for space to install an additional air handler, when he popped open a sealed compartment on the wall. And there they were, dusty and scattered. Some were tied with dated paper bands against the wall, but many more were loose and scattered.

“It seems as someone just chucked them in there,” James said.

The stacks of papers looked like bills at first, he said. After realizing that they weren’t bills, he continued to look for other valuables such as bond and stock certificates.

“Like anyone’s initial reaction would have been, I thought, ‘What did I strike?’ “ James said.

To ready the full story, click here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

‘A forgotten wreck’

Members of the Southampton Railroad Station Society plan to mark the 1921 crash of two trains near Bryn Athyn, killing 27.

BY GEMA MARIA DUARTE

STAFF WRITER

For many area residents the train track onCreek RoadinUpper Morelandis just that — a train track.

But to some railroad historians like Charles Liberto, Frank Baldwin and Richard Mansley and a few area families, the single lane track means history. A painful history.

Saturday will mark the 88th anniversary of a deadlyUpper Morelandtrain wreck that claimed 27 lives and injured 70 people. The crash and the high number of casualties, many of whom burned to death, were the result of several factors, including weather, human error and the railroad system, which was run by thePhiladelphiaand Reading Railway during that time.

The crash happened in a narrow pathway surrounded by steep rock walls on either side of the track, making it difficult for passengers to evacuate from the train cars. Passengers couldn’t flee the intense flames that were fueled by the wooden train cars and gas tanks attached to each passenger car to heat them. Escape was also hindered by snow up to 10 inches deep that covered the ground.

“One man managed to get to the door of one of the coaches but was so badly burned up (in) the front that his skin and clothing were falling off him and he died,” according to documents researched by Mansley.

The 1993 book “Great Train Wrecks of Eastern Pennsylvania” by authors Charles J. Adams III and David J. Seibold describes the screams, moans and groans of the dying rising above the roar of the fire. A trapped passenger in a coach erupting in flames pleads with a rescuer to bash his head fearing he would burn to death.

“Piles of bones and ashes were carried out in potato baskets,” the book reads. “The charred corpse of a baby was removed by an emotionally-drained fireman.”

Of the 27 who died, 18 were positively identified. The others were so badly burned that they couldn’t be matched by name, only by those who were reported missing. Of those, the youngest was 17-year-old Emma C. Leedom and the oldest was 48-year-old H. Voorhees Hogeland.

The nine were placed in a sack cloth and buried together at Churchville Cemetery Co. onBristol Roadnext to the North and Southampton Reformed Church in Upper Southampton. At the cemetery, a large headstone reads, “That they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.” On Friday, the victims “in the Byrn Athyn Train Wreck” — also etched in the headstone — will be remembered when members of the Southampton Railroad Station Society host a 10 a.m. memorial ceremony of the 1921 tragedy at the gravesite at 1380 Bristol Road.

THE WRECK 

Two passenger trains were traveling on a single track of thePhiladelphiaand Reading Railway — one heading toNewtownfromPhiladelphiaand the other in the reverse direction — when they collided head-on that tragic Dec. 5 morning. The site was between the now-defunct Woodmont and Paper Mill stations.

The point of the 7:55 a.m. collision was about 1.3 miles east of the Bryn Athyn station and 0.8 miles west of the Woodmont station, according to the accident investigation report dated Dec. 23, 1921, from the Interstate Commerce Commission, Bureau of Safety.

It happened in the middle of a rock cut about 200 feet in length with a maximum depth of 30 feet. The cut is on a curve in the tracks about 1,000 feet long in a remote, wooded section along the Pennypack Creek.

“On account of this curve and cut, the range of vision was much restricted and there was little opportunity for either engineman to see the opposing train,” the report reads.

The single track ran for 16.6 miles from Cheltenham to Newtown.

Because each train was running between 25 and 30 mph, the impact forced both engines upward. The locomotive of the eastbound train which was headed toNewtown— Train No. 151 — landed on top of its own tender, which carried fuel for the engine. The engine of the westbound train — Train No. 156 — came to rest on top of the first locomotive, according to the report.

After the collision, a fire erupted, destroying the first coach of each train. Flames spread, burning the second and third coaches of Train No. 156. The wooden cars — later nicknamed “coffin cars” by the public — fueled the fire. Wood-framed passenger cars subsequently were banned as a result of the accident.

The wreck came to be known as “Coffin Cars in Death Gulch” because it happened in the narrow cut of the railroad.

THE RESCUE 

The wreck happened in the gulch, which left little room to remove passengers from the cars or for victims to crawl out. There wasn’t much room for firefighters to spray water on the fire either. There was snow and mud on the ground complicating the rescue effort.

From the Woodmont station to the wreck site, it was about a 10-minute walk without snow. Most of the rescuers started from the station, said Liberto, a member of therailroad station society.

When they arrived, it was nearly impossible to get to those trapped in the wreckage because there was only about 5 feet of space on either side of the rock walls. Pinned passengers burned to death as rescuers watched helplessly.

The New York Times, in a Dec. 6, 1921, article, describes the unfathomable tragedy and futile rescue efforts.

“Save us,” two women screamed, according to the article. “Then suddenly the entire indescribable mass of twisted steel and wood broke into flames from the burning gas lights inside the coaches and from the coals from the fireboxes of the engines.”

The article continues: “Rescuers tried desperately to save the two women, but the flames crept closer and closer and suddenly the screams ceased. A few minutes later two charred bodies could be seen where the women had once been.”

Laborer John Taliaferrio was one of the first at the scene, according to the Times. He entered a wrecked car through a window and tried to help a man who was pinned.

“My God!” the helpless man cried. “Can’t you do something for me? My feet are caught. I’m hurt. Get me away from that fire. I cannot get loose. Get something and knock me unconscious. Get a gun and shoot me. Please don’t let me die like a dog.”

Taliaferrio was unable to save the man, according to the Times. Rescuers threw rope into the flames hoping people would latch on and get pulled out. However, the ropes burned quickly. The injured were removed from the cars and dragged to the banks of Pennypack Creek.

WHAT CAUSED THE WRECK? 

Train No. 156 had the right of way over Train No. 151, according the railroad schedule. Because there was one single track, one train had to pull over to provide right of way. But the engineer of Train No. 151 did not wait at Bryn Athyn, as directed by a written order, and instead got back on the track to continue to the Upper Southampton station after another train passed through.

Some speculate the engineer never knew that there was a second train coming — Train No. 156 — from Upper Southampton.

Bryn Athyn’s train station operator called emergency crews after realizing the two trains would collide. He also calledAbingtonHospital, the Reading Railroad office and his brother, William, who was the master at Woodmont, according to the book.

“The wreck was considered one of the worst train disasters in American history,” said Liberto. “The railroad and some employees were both blamed for this ghastly tragedy.”

The conductor and engineer of train No. 151, and thePhiladelphiaand Reading Railway were held responsible by investigators. The two men served time in prison, but later were pardoned by the state’s governor.

VISITING DECADES LATER 

Earlier this week, Liberto and society member Frank Baldwin walked from the Woodmont station onCreek RoadinUpper Morelandto the wreck site.

“The accident happened on a day very much like today, but with 8 to 10 inches of snow,” Liberto said. “The wreck was known as the daySouthamptondied. Half ofSouthampton’s commuter population died that day.”

His father, Felix Liberto, was the baggage master on Train No. 151. He collected tickets and loaded luggage on the train. Felix, who was 25 at the time, was seated in the rear of the train but was still injured.

“After the wreck, my father had metal plates in his hand and knee,” Liberto said.

Still, he continued working for the railroad, retiring after 54 years with the company.

“I knew that an accident happened but I didn’t know all the details until I started researching,” Liberto said. “My father didn’t talk about it. It was too painful for him.”

Now, there is nothing at the wreck site to show the pain and suffering from 88 years earlier, least of all a memorial. This is the time of year when the tracks and ties are covered in leaves and weeds on the line that is no longer used. Naked trees surround the track, which is now owned by SEPTA. Private Property signs are posted nearby.

An aging telegraph pole still stands on top of some nearby rocks, which are covered with graffiti.

Looking at the tracks and surroundingsBaldwinsays, “This is the forgotten wreck.”

Gema Maria Duarte can be reached at 215-949-4195 or gduarte@phillyBurbs.com.

Editor’s note: Historical background was obtained from several sources, including “Great Train Wrecks of Eastern Pennsylvania,” published in April 1993; New York Times article dated Dec. 6, 1921; the accident investigation report dated Dec. 23, 1921, from the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Bureau of Safety; and Southampton Railroad Station Society.

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