When the Gong Rings
A Fire History of Charleston, Illinois

133.   FIRE LOG 1966

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Disaster in Mattoon, Trucks Collide, Fireman Killed




       During the 1966 period, Charleston firemen had a rash of false alarms called in from EIU dorms. We've read of President Doudna's response to criticism of college students. Charleston's sister city, Mattoon had two stations and several trucks and firemen. On March 29, 1966, a mixture of false alarm, trucks traveling from opposite directions to the same address would add up to one of the worst fire department disasters in Central Illinois history. One fireman would be killed in a terrible collision of two fire engines. 

[The Mattoon Journal Gazette, Tuesday, March 29, 1966 tells of the disaster in nearly whole front page coverage]


Accident   kills   Mattoon Fireman Robert DeMars; Three Seriously Injured A Mattoon fireman was killed and three others injured in the shattering crash of two fire trucks at 10:10 A.M. today, (March 29, 1966). The trucks, en route to a fire alarm at 1208 Richmond, crashed at the intersection of 15th and Broadway. After the collision, one of the trucks damaged six parked automobiles before coming to a halt. Dead is Robert G. DeMars, 34, of 3308 Chestnut, a fireman since August 7, 1956, and the father of three young children. Injured were Dean Elder, 33 of 2515 Western, a passenger in the truck driven by DeMars; John Joseph Finnegan, 54, 1621 Shelby; Troy Webb Timm, 33, of 716 N. 27th, driver of the other truck. All are reported in serious condition and in a state of shock at Mattoon Memorial Hospital. They sustained cuts, lacerations and other injuries. Elder also sustained a broken hip and arm, according to hospital officials. DeMars was pinned under the cab of No. 2 engine.

       An eyewitness to the tragedy told the Journal-Gazette that he saw a man fly out of the cab and land on the pavement. The truck then rolled to a stop on top of the body. Elder was pinned under the steering wheel of the truck and was freed after two local men hack sawed the spokes of the wheel. Wrecker crews worked feverishly to free both men. elder was removed from the wreckage at approximately 10:20 A.M. and DeMars immediately thereafter. According to police and fire department officials, No. 1 was northbound on 15th Street and No. 2 was eastbound on Broadway. From the condition of the trucks, it is assumed that the pumper from Fire Station two driven by DeMars, hit the pumper from Fire Station one driven by Timm, directly behind the cab. The two engines collided in the middle of the intersection with No. 2 engine rolling over. It stopped on the northeast curb of the intersection. No. 1 engine struck six parked automobiles on the north side of Broadway. Both fire trucks were described by city officials as "total losses." Mayor Morgan F. Phipps called an emergency city council meeting for 1:30 P.M. the day of the crash to determine what action was needed to meet the crisis.

Charleston Fire Department sent a truck and one man to Mattoon to help cover the city in case of a fire. Champaign and Effingham also sent trucks. The Civil Defense negotiated the borrowing of two fire trucks from the Chicago area.

The two fire engines and their were answering a call from a woman who reported that some sparks from a trash barrel fire ignited grass near the barrel. The woman who reported the fire, put the fire out and called the fire station to tell the firemen on duty that there was no longer need for its assistance. The call, however, came after both engines had left their respective stations.