Monday, February 24, 2020

A Green Hornet streetcar causes an inferno with gasoline tanker truck in Chicago. (1950)

The collision occurred around 6:30pm on May 25, 1950. The accident happened at the intersection of 63rd Place and State Street. The Inferno killed 34 people and injured 50 others in the two vehicles and the surrounding area.
On May 25, 1950, Chicago experienced one of its worst traffic accidents when a streetcar collided with a gas tanker truck. Thirty-four people died. — Chicago Tribune historical photo

A scene from the May 25, 1950, Green Hornet streetcar crash. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
The Green Hornet Streetcar (named for its speed and color), trolley № 7078, was headed south on State Street, carrying 63 passengers. Suddenly the streetcar switched to the eastbound track to avoid a flooded underpass. “Apparently, the motorman of the streetcar was not paying attention, and went through that switch at total velocity, and hit the side of that truck with dire consequences,” said Craig Cleve, author of the book The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster. 

Whether the streetcar driver or the streetcar itself was at fault is unclear, but the Green Hornet did not slow down. As it approached the turn at approximately 30 mph, the streetcar derailed as it hit a Mack truck hauling 8,000 gallons of gasoline.

The gasoline tanker truck, carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline, jackknifed after the collision and blocked State Street 200 feet north of 63rd Street. The driver of the truck, Mel Wilson, died in the cab of the truck while the conductor of the streetcar, William C. Lidell, survived.
Two parked cars are hosed by firemen after the blaze at 6251 State Street. By most accounts, the streetcar was going too fast for the wet conditions. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
A battered watch carried by one of the streetcar crash victims showed the time of the disaster. It stopped at 6:33 on May 26, 1950. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
Thirty-three people died immediately on the streetcar and one died later of injuries from the crash. Thirty people managed to survive despite the fact that the windows and doors wouldn't open. Fifty people, some were on the streetcar, and others in the surrounding area were injured. According to the National Safety Council’s report two days after the crash, it was the largest death toll from a motor vehicle collision, surpassing the 29 people killed in a 1940 Texas train-truck collision. Some victims were identified immediately because of personal belongings whereas other victims were identified at the Cook County Morgue by friends and relatives in the days following the crash.
A priest gives last rites to the victims on May 25, 1950, when a Green Hornet streetcar collided with a fuel truck. It was a grim task to identifying bodies as there wasn't much to go on: burned clothes, melted shoes, a ring, bits of toys, remnants of a letter from a young woman planning her wedding. — Dante Mascione, Chicago Tribune

This shell was what remained of the Green Hornet streetcar after searing flames from gasoline spilled from a tanker truck destroyed it and killed its human cargo. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
In addition to the lives lost, nearby buildings and parked cars were consumed by the flames. The fire destroyed seven buildings, between the 6239 and 6247 addresses, leaving 120 people homeless. The total property damage was estimated to be around $150,000 ($1,502,663.90 today). William C. Liddell, the streetcar conductor, disappeared after the crash but was arrested the day after, charged with leaving the scene of the accident.
A general view on May 26, 1950, of the scene north of 63rd and State Streets where a streetcar and gasoline truck collided the day before, killing 34 people. The streetcar was being switched into a "turnaround" because of flooded conditions of an underpass beneath a viaduct from which this picture was taken. The arrows added show details of the accident, as well as the buildings damaged in the explosion. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
A worker demonstrates how the switch for the streetcar is normally manually operated. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
Police officers and the coroner at the county morgue on May 25, 1950. The tragic accident left 34 persons dead. — Chicago Tribune historical photo
In 1955, the Chicago Transit Authority claimed it paid a total of $900,000 ($8,713,400 today) to families of the deceased. The accident was highly investigated, drawing conclusions as to what could prevent another such catastrophe. Among them was the addition of drainage systems for frequently flooded underpasses so operators would not have to detour, two yearly physical examinations of motormen and streetcar doors that could remain open in case of an emergency to allow for evacuation. However, in 1958 the CTA elected to stop using streetcars entirely. They were replaced by bus routes that still run today.
Green Hornet Streetcar Inferno, Oil on Canvas by Eric Edward Esper. (2013)
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. There were enough small errors in this situation that added up to the tragedy. The flooded underpass had subsided. The switch should have been turned to let #7078 go south on State St. The operator of #7078 thought the switch had been turned. This was why the car was going so swiftly. The car would have been travelling at a much lower speed if the operator knew it was turning.
    The collision rendered the front doors of #7078 unusable, as well as being the closest to the fire. The conductor, William C. Lidell, while stunned from the impact, managed to adjust the rear door controls to neutral, so they could be opened by pushing on them. As to why he left the accident scene: He was Black and fearful of arrest. If there was anyone from the CTA who could have been arrested, it would have been the street supervisor telling the operator of #7078 that the detour was over without checking that the switch had been turned.
    If you browse transit weblogs, Neil, you may encounter a gruesome photograph which I have glimpsed, which the newspapers did not print, and which might go beyond a PG-13 rating, showing bodies stacked up eight deep inside the rear doors. The persons who escaped went through the broken-out rear window, and in the case of some young teenage girls, knew how to "pull the cherry" (emergency exit) of the center door.


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