Jan. 7 is always a big celebration day in the D’Imperio family. My twin sisters, Teri and Mary, plus my youngest daughter, Katie, all share it as a birthday. The date, however, is not without a dark significance.
Jan. 7, 1966, was quite an exciting day for our family at The Hospital since none of us, including my mom, knew she was having twins. Even my dad was shocked when the nurse poked her head out of the delivery room 22 minutes after one baby girl was born and told him, “Don, you’d better go back down to Jamesway and get another crib.”
But the Hospital was eerie that late afternoon. It was in the air. Nobody knew why, but it was odd. Before long, ambulance sirens, chattering beepers and louder and louder asides between nurses and doctors in the hallway told the story to one and all.
Something had happened in neighboring Bainbridge. Something big and something bad.
A D&H train had come roaring through Bainbridge coming up from Binghamton at dusk. It blitzed through the main crossing, leaving the rails, whipsawing over the railroad grade, taking out houses, ripping the fire station asunder and killing people in trackside homes all before coming to rest in a pile of jumbled, smoking boxcars right smack dab in the middle of little Bainbridge, N.Y.
For baby boomers in my hometown, this would be the seminal disaster that would forever be etched in our memory. Any rivalry that existed, real or imagined, between the towns of Sidney, Unadilla and Bainbridge came to a pause that awful day. Despite the shock of it all, heroism was also on call that day. Scintilla, Bordens, Keith Clark and the other local factories emptied of their first responders, emergency personnel and others, all volunteers, as they heeded the unspoken call to “go to Bainbridge.” What they witnessed upon first glimpse I’m sure is with all of them still today.
The Bainbridge fire station, a sturdy wooden building decades old, was now unrecognizable, scattered in chunks on both sides of the street, its tower tilting toward the storefronts below. At the moment the train ground to a stop, automobiles were lined up patiently awaiting the end of the “ding, ding, ding” bells of the crossing arms. A huge boxcar, one set of wheels on the rails and the other not, stopped right in front of the line of cars. With a creak and a crack and a movement I’m sure seemed like slow motion, the giant boxcar waved back and forth, back and forth before finally crashing down on the unlucky car that led the line waiting at the crossing gate. The driver was trapped underneath a ton of crushed metal.
One of the small homes which lined the trackside area was smashed, killing a well-known couple as they sat in their easy chairs on what was just another nondescript upstate New York day.
I was 16 years old on the day of the train wreck. My buddies and I went down the next day to see what it looked like. Everybody went down. It was a sight of sheer horror. And yet still it was a day of inspiration and heroism and small town true grit. In those days, nobody got paid to fight our fires, to pull us out of a burning car or to keep a growing crowd away from imminent danger. In many towns they still do not get paid to do this. Which begs the question, then.
Why do they do it?
In the little one-fire truck villages and hamlets of upstate New York, these heroes still rush into a fire while everybody else is rushing out. They do it out of a sense of duty, a sense of what is right, a sense of honor. They are all volunteers with everyday jobs. They are our insurance guys and our dentists. They are our nurses and our factory workers. They are our retired shopkeepers and our ministers. But when that lonely siren blasts through the still upstate night air, and they kiss their families goodbye and head out into the inky, black unknown, they become our heroes.
Yes, Jan. 7, 1966, was a happy day for our family, welcoming into this world two beautiful little girls. But it was also a day of heroes when hell visited our neighboring little town of Bainbridge.
To those who responded to the call nearly 50 years ago, in case we forgot to say it then, let me say it now.
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching “Big Chuck.” He invites you to contact him at email@example.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.