As an American, up until recently, I was completely unaware of the terrible crash at the Harrow and Wealdstone train station 70 years ago. I first learned of it in a roundabout way as I was researching an idea for my children’s book, The Inkwell Chronicles: The Ink of Elspet. The acclaimed author, C.S. Lewis, had begun his novel, The Last Battle, with a railway accident, and I wanted to know if there had been any historic reference that would have been in his mind as he wrote.
I did not have to dig far to see a parallel between his descriptions and what occurred on October 8th, 1952. It was easy to conclude that such an enormous tragedy would make an indelible impression on any writer living in the UK at the time.
The actual cause of the Harrow and Wealdstone wreck remains shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, which lent itself to imagining a fictional account for my young readers. My work is a novel that takes a fanciful turn. But the real–world courage on display that day remains the most compelling story that needs no embellishment, and it provided me with the first hero in my book.
The accident on that October morning stands out as the UK’s single biggest peacetime collision, involving three separate trains. One hundred and twelve people lost their lives, with another 340 injured.
Harrow had been blanketed by fog in the early hours that day, creating poor visibility for the high–speed locomotives. The driver of the Perth train missed a total of three caution signals, barreling into two other trains that were already at the busy station for the morning rush hour.
As it happened, several passengers were members of the 494th Medical Group of the United States Air Force. They immediately called the new Air Force Hospital in South Ruislip, which dispatched an emergency response team. The team was composed of seven doctors and one nurse, who was Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine.
Nurse Sweetwine had already encountered the hurdles facing a woman in the armed services during that era. What’s more, as a Black female, she had to battle additional discrimination that originally prevented her from even becoming a member of the U.S. Air Force. Policies in place at the time dictated that she had to initially join the Army before finally being allowed to transfer to the branch where she most wanted to serve.
By the time she reached the platform at Harrow & Wealdstone, she was accustomed to breaking new ground. What took place that day continued the pattern she had already established.
Nurse Sweetwine and the team of doctors set up a triage station where they could sort and treat the wounded even before they were taken to the hospital. Some suffered only minor injuries or shock and received the comforts of cigarettes and tea. More serious casualties received blood plasma and morphine.
In the chaos on the platform, she had no pen at her disposal. But Nurse Sweetwine had the presence of mind to use her own lipstick as a writing instrument, identifying what treatment each patient had received. She marked the forehead of treated patients with an “X” and those that had received morphine with an “M.” Her marking system was transmitted through the ambulance drivers to hospital staff, preventing patients from receiving an overdose of morphine.
Media at the time gave her the moniker, “The Angel of Platform Six“. In January 1953 she was honoured at a luncheon hosted by the Royal Variety Charity at the Savoy Hotel, where she was presented with an engraved cigarette case commemorating her accomplishments. Modern triage and paramedic practices continue to owe much of their existence to the pioneering efforts of Nurse Sweetwine and her team.
Never one to seek out the spotlight, Abbie Sweetwine served for many more years in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of major by the time she retired. She passed away in 2009.
I was so captivated by her story that I sought out one of her surviving relatives to learn more about her remarkable life. Dr. Burgandi Thompson-Alexander, who spent much of her childhood with “Nurse Abbie,” was more than happy to help celebrate her great aunt and fill in additional details. You can watch the full interview here to learn about this quietly heroic woman and the high-achieving family she loved.
On this seventieth anniversary of that fateful day that produced so much grief and loss, I am grateful for the example of one individual whose efforts saved lives and continue to make a difference. She is an inspiration to us all, and it is a privilege to have a small part in passing on her story to a younger generation.
Speaking with Harrow Online, Dr Burgandi Thompson-Alexander said of her Grand Aunt: “Each of you have a fingerprint that no one else has, so you can leave an imprint that no one else can.”
“Abbie’s mark was unique and indelible because of who she was and not the influence of others”, she added.