Remembering 'worst day' in community's history

2013-10-31T00:00:00Z 2013-11-06T09:50:07Z Remembering 'worst day' in community's historyDeborah Laverty deborah.laverty@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2223 nwitimes.com

LAKE STATION | Roberta "Bobbee" Miller Clawson is still haunted by the memory of the Halloween 1971 accident that claimed the life of her sister and three other girls. 

Clawson, who was 12 at the time, recalls seeing the train speeding toward the church bus she was riding in and knowing there was going to be a horrific crash.

"I held onto the seat in front of me and closed my eyes. There wasn't time to yell out," Clawson said.

The 9:27 a.m. crash occurred when the First Baptist Church bus, which was westbound on Marquette Street, turned to cross the unmarked Grand Boulevard tracks. The bus, with passengers heading to the nearby church, was hit and dragged more than 500 feet by the freight train.

According to newspaper reports about the incident, the bus driver didn't stop -- and wasn't legally required to at the time. The crossing was reportedly marred by overgrowth.

Four girls, all from what was then known as East Gary, were killed: Elizabeth Miller, 17; Rebecca Tucker, 13; Donna Marie Breckman, 13 and Merralee Meler, 9.

Clawson, now 54 and living in Toledo, Ohio, doesn't want the city to ever forget the Halloween nightmare of events in what is now Lake Station.

She, resident Fred Newman and others have commissioned and paid for a special bronze plaque to honor the girls' memory. Now, with the completion of the plaque, the group is looking for a permanent home to display it including the Lake Station/New Chicago branch of the Lake County Library.

"I told my sister you will not be forgotten and now, after 42 years, it is getting done. Now we need to find a home," Clawson said.

Newman, a year ahead of Clawson in school, refers to the wreck as "the worst day in Lake Station's history."

Newman, 55, was 13 at the time of the crash. He became interested in the story after cleaning out a closet and finding a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1971.

Newman, who was involved with a class reunion project and holding conversations with former classmates, connected with Clawson online. Plans for the memorial were launched four years ago.

"The basic question was how come no one ever did anything? For such a small town to lose four young girls on a Halloween morning. ...If it happened in Chicago, someone would have had a memorial," Newman said. 

Mayor Keith Soderquist said he has set aside a room in the new city complex that will be earmarked as a museum.

Soderquist has some clippings and artifacts about the crash will be on display.

"It's important we remember what happened on that Halloween Day. We'll have an area that will tell the story," Soderquist said.

Soderquist said he is willing to have the bronze plaque placed inside the city museum.

"The invitation is always open," Soderqust said.

Clawson said she and Newman are hoping to have the plaque placed in the library because they believe it would be the more appropriate place and more visible.

She has also considered, but not requested, a spot at Edison High School because that's the school her sister attended and where the three other crash victims would have ended up going.

Clawson, who said she had a dream about the crash the Friday night before it happened, said the Sunday Oct. 31, 1971 incident has affected her entire life.

"I spent a week in the hospital for four fractured vertebrae and a severe concussion. It took me two-and-a-half years to heal. ...They told my parents I would probably only live to be 30," Clawson said.

She went back to seventh-grade classes at Edison Junior High School after the Christmas holiday with no counselors brought in and no one talking about what happened.

"For most of the kids I grew up with this was their first experience with the death of a classmate or peer; it leaves a mark," Clawson said.

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