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The Tay Bridge Horror page 2

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It might well be thought that with this evidence of disaster before their eyes, and with the accounts of their informants still ringing in their ears, any last lingering doubt as to the fate of the train would now have left them. Yet, almost incredibly, it did not. Because these two men wished so desperately for the tidings to be untrue, they actually persuaded themselves into the belief that untrue they were.

They saw, or at least they thought that they saw, a red light at the southern end of the bridge, and immediately their spirits rose. That was the missing train for sure, they told each other: obviously the driver had caught sight of the gap in time and had brought his charge to an immediate standstill. Of course...

The matter could not be left in this indecisive state, however, and the Provost of Dundee set about ascertaining the facts at once. For a long while there was no means of which he could avail himself to investigate the scene of the disaster, but at last the steamer Dundee ventured out from Newport into the tempest, and immediately on her arrival at the north side the Provost, with a number of other leading citizens, engaged her to take them to the spot immediately below the gap.

The Dundee left Craig Pier a little after 10 p.m. The gale, though still blowing great guns, no longer had quite the hurricane violence it had manifested earlier in the night, and the steamer was able to make steady progress. Throughout the first part of the journey clouds obscuring the face of the moon made it impossible to see anything clearly, but when the vessel had arrived quite close to the bridge, those aboard could, by straining their eyesight up through the gloom, estimate the approximate extent of the damage. Their dismay may be pictured when they discerned that the whole stretch of high girders spanning the navigable channel had been swept away, a section no less than 3,000 feet in length. It seemed to them almost unbelievable that the tremendous mass of iron could have descended into the river without the uproar of its fall reaching the ears of a living soul. Yet above their heads was the yawning gap to prove it, and, below, thirteen naked concrete piers which three hours before had supported the giant girders (The piers of the old bridge still stand alongside those of the present structure.).

On some of these piers the officials imagined at first, in the uncertain light, that they saw a number of human bodies lying; closer inspection soon revealed, however, that this was an illusion, and that the objects were in reality only portions of the ironwork which still adhered to the concrete,

Of the train and the fallen girders not a vestige was visible, though directly under the gap the- water looked more broken and troubled than elsewhere. Since it was impossible to get the steamer any nearer, a boat was manned by a bold crew, the harbour master himself taking the helm. But when they had poked about for a good time within a boat's length of the piers, and still had discovered no sign or trace of the wreckage, it was determined to wait for daylight before making any further explorations, and accordingly the officials arranged for the Harbour Trustees' tug Fair Weather to be ready at dawn.

On shore word had gone round like wildfire that the bridge had collapsed and it was feared a train had fallen into the Tay. Thousands mustered round the buildings of Tay-bridge Station, demanding confirmation or a denial. The officials, however, preserved a judiciously non-committal attitude, contenting themselves with saying that if the train had fallen into the river there could be no possible hope of any lives having been saved. There were a few demonstrations of wild, unrestrained grief, but for the most part the crowds received this intelligence in stony silence. Doubtless they could not yet believe that this frightful thing had really happened: it was too utterly monstrous, a loving and merciful God could never have permitted it. Besides, many held the definite belief that on account of the violence of the gale the train had been brought to a standstill either on the initial stretch of the bridge or before entering the bridge at all. That they should cling to such hopes was natural enough, since the breaking of the telegraph wires had prevented there being any communication at all yet with stations on the Fifeshire side.

Only too soon, however, came news that shattered these flimsy, pathetic hopes at a single blow - the news that a number of mail-bags had come ashore at Broughty Ferry, a few miles from the bridge.

Those tidings broke down the stoical fortitude of the waiting throng, and at last its emotions took complete possession. The scene round the station was too pitiful for description. Men and women alike stood there in the fitful moonlight with their faces bathed in the tears of utter despair. And anger there was as well, blind anger against the officials who had suffered the train to attempt a crossing on a night so wild. Many of the poor souls had loved ones whom they had been expecting to arrive by that ill-starred train. Only one consolation there was for them: the conviction that the end must have come with merciful swiftness. A few brief seconds of agonised terror there would have been when the coaches lurched from the rails and crashed into the enclosing girders; a moment or two at horror's zenith as they whirled and hurtled down through the night; then just the impetuous inrush of the icy waters and - oblivion.

When the morning papers came out, carrying the news of the calamity, scenes took place which beggar description. In the early dawn the Esplanade was thickly crowded with people who had hurried forth to scan the water below the sea-wall for wreckage. From mouth to mouth the rumours flew, growing with every retelling, till the actual number of victims was more than trebled.

The crowd was not disappointed in its search for debris. Towards the east the beach was plentifully strewn with it - strips of torn planking, pieces of the railway-carriages, portmanteaux, fragments of wearing apparel, and a hundred and one other miscellaneous objects. Of the fallen span and the train itself, however, still not a sign was to be seen from the shore.

One thing which the dawn revealed was the extraordinarily clean nature of (he break. Had it not been for the projecting ends of the rails, torn asunder at the fish-joints, it might have been imagined that the missing girders had been removed by workmen.

At 9 a.m. a body was observed floating in the water near the beach just east of Tay-grove, East Newport. When brought ashore it was found to be the corpse of an elderly woman with grey-streaked hair and wearing a dress of black merino. There were no marks of violence except a very slight bruise on the forehead. Later in the day the poor soul was identified as a Mrs. Mann, of Forfar. She receives special mention here as the first victim recovered.

A crane-barge was now made fast to the tug Fair Weather, and she steamed out for the scene of the accident, carrying life-hooks, sounding-poles and diving apparatus. This time, having the advantage of broad daylight, the searchers at once perceived part of one of the girders projecting from the water, and proceeded to probe about in its immediate neighbourhood with their boathooks. Very soon one of them reported that his hook was fast in something soft and yielding. His companions naturally expected to see a body brought to the surface; what he actually fished up however, was a tangled mass of telegraph wires.

Diving operations were begun at 9.30, the diver making two descents in twenty feet of water beneath the visible girder. But in neither of these did he discover the least trace either of the railway carriages or of the dead, so recourse was next had to the sounding poles. Almost at once it was ascertained that some massive bulk was lying between the third and fourth piers, but unluckily the tide was running too strong now for the diver to go down again for the time being.

On the following day the whereabouts of the train still remained undiscovered, for the water was so intensely muddy that even at twelve feet below the surface the divers could do no more than grope about at random in inky darkness. The public became increasingly impatient at these continued failures. It was pointed out with some heat that unless the bodies were soon recovered they would have become unrecognisable, and that it would consequently be impossible to perform the work of identification.

Complaints were raised, too, about the slowness with which inquiries seemed to be progressing as to exactly who had been travelling in the train. And, indeed, it was nothing short of amazing what difficulty the authorities were experiencing in making up a reliable list. At one moment they would receive sure information that so-and-so had been among the passengers, only to hear almost immediately from some other impeccable source that the person in question was still alive and well.

In the finally authenticated list there were many cases which awakened feelings of exceptional pity. One unfortunate Dundee woman left behind her six children, and there had been a man in the third-class, a ticket-collector remembered, in charge of several young children, one of whom he had been carrying in his arms. Tales of remarkably fortunate escapes, too, began to come in. Perhaps the most noteworthy was that of the man whose wife objected strongly to his travelling in such weather. Since he would not listen to her arguments, she deliberately manoeuvred to make him late for the train - and succeeded.

By the 30th the authorities had arrived at a conclusion as to how the accident had probably occurred, namely, that one or two of the end carriages had been blown off the rails and then been dragged along the track, tearing against the iron lattice-work as they went, the broad surface which the train presented to the wind increasing the pressure on the bridge beyond its powers of resistance. They felt fairly confident, too, that the train, when ultimately located, would be found inside the high girders - imprisoned, in fact, in a gigantic iron cage. This would account for the very meagre quantity of wreckage thus far washed up on the shores, and it implied also that very grave difficulties must be anticipated when it came to freeing the coaches and their contents, because the metal visible above water was distorted out of all resemblance to its former shape.

These theories quickly received justification: diving operations carried out at ebb tide towards evening that same day resulted in the discovery that the first-class coach lay about sixty feet to the north-east of the fourth pier, while the remainder of the train, as had been forecast, was caged inside the lattice-work of the high girders.

It was not until April, 1880, that the work of raising those girders, with their imprisoned dead, was successfully carried through. On the 1st, part of No. 5 girder was lifted by pontoon, floated to Broughty Ferry, and there beached; the remaining portion, which contained the engine and tender, was raised on the night of the 9th. Apart from the loss of its funnel, the locomotive showed little damage. The fact that the reverse had not been applied seemed to point to the driver having probably had no time in which to slow down. A portion of No. 4 girder was brought ashore on the 20th.

A number of isolated corpses had been recovered by various means in the interval. The body of one young man, greatly decomposed, was found on the beach six miles away from the bridge. Another corpse came ashore in a fisherman's net, and another was found by a pleasure party out boating. In all, forty-six of the train's grim complement were rendered up.

The rescue of No. 4 girder was of especial importance, because the ironwork was found to exhibit unmistakable marks of grazing, while the angle-iron and corner plate of its fifth strut appeared to have received a blow of terrific violence from the south. Those mute witnesses represented the sole evidence procurable as to what really occurred on that wild December night. The only tongues which could have told the facts were stilled for ever beneath the Tay estuary's dark waters.

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