The boy who fell from the Super Continental
By Frank Rasky
Reprinted from The Star Weekly, Toronto - December 3, 1966
In Sioux Lookout, Ont., they still refer to it as the double miracle. One miracle was the way a two-and-a-half-year-old boy was flung 50 feet out of the CNR’s No. 1 Super Continental passenger train while it was travelling last September at 60 miles an hour, and yet survived his tumble with a few minor cuts and bruises.
The other miracle was the way the divided town-folk forgot their differences and united overnight to search for the lost boy in cold and slashing rain with flashlights and flickering lanterns until they found him alive, after a 15-hour search, hungry, huddled in a bed of sweet grass and baby breath weeds near the tracks.
Sioux Lookout isn’t much to look at. It’s a lonely little speck on the map of northwestern Ontario, hard by the Manitoba border. Like hundreds of Canadian whistle-stops, it might be described as a main street with a railroad station squatting on one end and jack pine stretching out to nowhere on the other end.
The town has a population of 2700. Some are CNR railroaders descended from the Ukrainian, Irish, and Italian track-laying crews who first axed a path out of the virgin bush there for the end of steel six decades ago. Some are Ojibway Indians descended from the fierce warriors who once repulsed Sioux marauders in a famous local massacre and who now live docilely in the nearby Lac Seul reservation.
Some are of French and Indian descent. Their ancestors paddled voyageur canoes up the mighty English River system but they now sit placidly on the front steps of the Sioux Hotel waiting to serve as guides for American sportsmen come to fish for tiger muskie or prospectors bound for the Pickle Crow gold camps. And some are retired Scottish Gentlemen Adventurers, like Wesley Houston, who came over from Glasgow in 1930 to pack beaver pelts for the Hudson’s Bay Co. up in Moose Factory at 20 dollars a month, and who now runs an Indian souvenir shop and in the basement cranks out the Sioux Lookout Daily Bulletin, Canada’s only mimeographed daily newspaper.
Two signs in the store window of the town’s Hudson’s Bay post typify Sioux Lookout’s uneasy straddling of the centuries. One announces: “The Bay, Incorporated 2nd May 1670, Furs Purchased For Cash.” Another sign advertises: “New Vista Color TV, So Real You’ll Think You Are There.”
Not exactly a raw frontier, the town hosts a 135-man RCAF radar station, a modern 45-bed general hospital, two bush pilot services, two-way-radio taxi cabs that go over gravel roads, a public library and museum, Garnet Czinkota’s streamlined Fairway supermarket, Mel Dalseg’s Mayfair movie theatre and six-lane Bowladrome, a Canadian Legion Hall, and even a juvenile delinquency problem, recently ameliorated by Mrs. Alice Salem, a dynamic United Church youth counselor, who got 150 teenagers to rebuild a burned out warehouse into a swinging Coffee A-Go-Go Teen Club decorated with “Ban The Bomb” murals.
Her husband is town clerk Phil Salem, an articulate intellectual of 37 from Toronto. “To passengers who step off the trains briefly to stretch their legs,” he says, “we’re probably just a sleepy little town. But to people like myself, who’ve settled here and love the blue lakes and wild forests, it’s a constant challenge to generate true community spirit so citizens won’t leave.”
Until recently, Salem believes community morale was low. The merchants resented the CNR picketers who joined the national railroad strike last summer and thus prevented tourists from coming to the town. Laborers were discouraged because the pulp and paper mill long promised for Sioux Lookout had fizzled out. The town’s amalgam of 57 nationalities tended to congregate in their own social units and compete with each other. Adults were denigrating the local youth as irresponsible idlers and the teenagers themselves were split up into camps of whites, Indians, and half-breeds.
“What the town needed,” says Salem, “was a good shaking up.”
That shakeup was supplied by a 21 year-old mother, Mrs. Faye Tower, clutching a Woolworth shopping bag filled with disposable diapers, who stepped down from the Super Continental onto the Sioux Lookout station platform at 5 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12. In a distraught voice, she announced, “One of my baby boys is missing. Please help me find him.”
To Faye Tower, Sioux Lookout will always remain fixed on her memory’s map as “Danny’s Lookout”, a point located 1800 miles from her old home in Amherst N.S., and 963 miles from Edmonton, Alberta.
Certainly she had never heard of the outlandish place at 9 o’clock on the previous Saturday night when she had carried her two sons, Danny, two-and-a-half, and Stevey, one-and-a-half, already asleep in their white and yellow pajamas, aboard the train at Amherst and tucked them as well as herself into the train’s lower dormant berth.
Her 23 year-old husband Jim had gone west a month before looking for work. Jim Tower had always been a hard worker. A husky 200-pounder, his big biceps tattooed with a blue crucifix and the word “Mom” that he had needled onto his skin himself, he had quit St. Charles Roman Catholic separate school at 16 to hoist crates at a grocery store. He had worked himself up to a housepainter.
But even at a dollar and a half an hour, painting jobs were scarce in Amherst, and he had followed a friend’s advice to “Go west, young man.”
After a long wait, Jim had written her a jubilant letter from Edmonton. He had found a job as a boilermaker’s assistant. It paid two dollars and thirty-eight cents an hour; at 45 hours a week, it meant a weekly take-home cheque of 99 dollars and 50 cents.
Jim enclosed a hundred-dollar bill in the envelope. He urged her to pay off the 35 dollars a month rent for their one-room apartment, buy a one-way ticket for herself and the two kids, and “Come west.”
Faye Tower did as she was told. As a country girl raised on a farm miles from Amherst, she was used to letting the man be the boss in the family. She is also a pretty girl, a tiny five-foot-two, with brown curly hair and soft brown eyes, set in an oval face. She has the simple tastes of a rural teenager, favoring Elvis Presley in the movies and Beverly Hillbillies on TV, and when she went to the Amherst station to buy her 87 dollar train fare to Edmonton, she purchased for reading on the trip six romance comic books and a couple of Harlequin nurse pocket novels, Doctor Overboard and A Doctor for Diana.
The extra money she had scrimped and saved by clerking at the five and ten cent store in Amherst for 30 dollars a week. With her earnings, she bought a lavender-blue suitcase and a good supply of disposable diapers. To keep the youngsters amused on the train, she picked up at a dollar apiece two toy cars – a black and white police cruiser for Danny and a fire red engine for Stevey.
The toys proved to be a wise investment, for Danny and Stevey are both brown-eyed, blond-haired bundles of restless energy. Danny particularly, though small for his age – 34 inches tall, just 27 pounds – was quite a handful. He was forever scampering down the aisle of the train coach and showing off his new police car to fellow passengers.
Though he slurs his words, Danny is also something of a chatterbox. He kept prattling with delight, “Daddy gone on shoo-shoo train. Danny see daddy on shoo-shoo train.”
These were the last words Faye Tower heard from Danny before he vanished off the train.
At 3:30 that Monday afternoon both children had awakened from their naps, having slept on a make-shift bed of two coach seats pulled together. Faye Tower diapered Danny and slipped some transparent rubber pants over the diaper. Then she clothed him in a pair of long brown corduroy trousers, a turquoise blue suede shirt, and a pair of brown sneakers.
She watched him romp down the aisle and smiled as she saw Danny sit down on the floor and show a young sailor how the wheels of his police car worked.
Stevey was still sleepy. So she cradled him in her arms and sat back contentedly in the coach seat to read one of her paperback nurse romances. As she turned the pages, she could hear Danny racing up and down the aisle and shrilling happily about the “shoo-shoo train.”
At 4:45 p.m. – 15 minutes before the Super Continental pulled into Sioux Lookout – Faye Tower forgot all about the tribulations of Doctor Overboard. A passenger tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Your little boy is gone.”
She rushed down the aisle and was dismayed to find that Danny had indeed disappeared. The sole trace he had left behind was his precious toy police cruiser tossed upside down beneath a seat.
She asked the porter to keep an eye on Stevey while she ran frantically through the nearby swaying coaches asking passengers, “Have you seen my son?”
With mounting panic, she heard the repeated reply, “No. Haven’t seen a sign of him.”
“At first I felt numb with disbelief,” she remembers. “He’s got to be on the train, I told myself. No way he can get off. I kept pinning my hopes on the young sailor I’d seen playing with Danny. But then I saw the sailor stepping off the train at Sioux Lookout without Danny and my heart sank.
“There, I thought, goes my last hope.”
Gordon Wright, veteran trainmaster at the Sioux Lookout depot, a bluff hearty fellow who has been a railroader for 25 of his 42 years and still considers railroading a great adventure, assured her that her son would be found.
The Super Continental was kept standing in the station for two hours while he had CNR porters and police prowl through every one of her 14 charcoal-and-white coaches and three orange-nosed engines.
At length, Wright had to confess to Faye Tower, “It’s a real mystery to me, ma’am. But your boy is gone.” As he helped her off the train, he apologized. “I’m afraid we can’t keep the train waiting any longer. If they find him aboard, they’ll wire us from Winnipeg. Meanwhile, we’ll move heaven and earth to search every inch of track east of here.”
Wright saw her lips quiver, and gently added, “Don’t worry ma’am. I know how it is. I have five kids of my own here in Sioux Lookout, and one of them, Cindy, is exactly the same age as your Danny.”
Faye Tower, wearing a rumpled pair of yellow slacks and a light sleeveless blouse, clutching her shopping bag of diapers with one hand and Stevey with the other, stood at the station platform. She stood there watching until the Super Continental gathered speed and faded out of sight, a black dot on the western horizon. Then she walked in a daze into the waiting room and sat down on a cold bench.
“I was stunned,” she recalls. “Up till that moment, I wouldn’t let myself think this was actually happening to me. It was like a dream. Something make-believe out of one of my nurse stories. But then, when I saw the train leave without us, the final link snapped and the reality hit me: ‘Danny’s fallen off the train and maybe he’s killed.’ I slowly went to pieces. I sat there shaking all over. I wept.”
She didn’t weep long. Mrs. Pearl Page, a matronly housewife of 42, green-eyed, brown-haired, herself the mother of a six-year-old Johnny Page, Jr., was one of the some 500 Sioux Lookouters who sprang to her aid or maintained a vigil that long night. Mrs. Page and her husband, a graying 44, had been attending an Anglican Church supper earlier that evening.
John Page, Sr., a former CNR brakeman, works as a stationary engineer at the Indian hospital on the Ojibway reservation. They had come down to the station to visit their son-in-law Leo Mousseau who is a telegraph operator. As soon as Leo told them about the missing boy, Mrs. Page hurried over the weeping mother. “Guess I’m just a nosey parker,” Pearl Page says today.
Mrs. Page offered a fresh handkerchief to help Faye Tower dry her tears and suggested, “Why don’t you come home with us?”
At the Page home on Wellington St., Pearl Page immediately gave Stevey a bath, fed him hot chicken soup, and bedded him down in the living-room on a camping cot. Faye Tower, now drained of emotion, managed a few sips of tea but couldn’t swallow any loaf cake. She was unable to eat a bite for the next 24 hours.
Neither did she have the strength to break the calamitous news to her husband in Edmonton.
But Pearl Page convinced her that Jim ought to know. And so, after listening almost uncomprehendingly on the other side of the long distance telephone, Jim Tower implored her, “Call me the minute you get any news about Danny. I’ll stay glued to this phone till I hear from you. And, honey, I’ll be praying.”
Sioux Lookouters did more than pray that night. When the Pages drove Faye Tower back to the station, it was swarming with volunteer searchers. The Department of Lands and Forests rescue unit was on the scene, its forestry personnel alerted as far as Y Cliff, 38 miles east of Sioux Lookout, its helicopter skimming over the bush like a scarlet dragonfly as far as Ghost River, 23 miles east of Sioux Lookout. Provincial Police Constable Tony Weeks and Municipal Police Constable Pete Kozluk, both giants, led bands of volunteers in patrolling the environs of Sioux Lookout.
Trainmaster Gordon Wright dragooned all those available of the CNR’s local contingent of 300 employees – as well as ex-railroaders – to mount the four-man, open-air “gas-cars” and slowly drive them back and forth along the tracks as far as Rosnel, 16 miles east of Sioux Lookout.
John Page, without bothering to change out of the white shirt he’d worn to the church supper, leaped aboard one of these gasoline-powered units. He spent the rest of the night with three of his former railroad buddies jumping off periodically into ankle-deep swamps to beam his lantern down dark gullies, rock culverts, and moose trails.
Everybody agreed that Mrs. Alice Salem, the United Church youth counselor, was the driving force responsible for recruiting so many volunteers. A born organizer, the town clerk’s wife, an attractive reddish blond of 27, with rimless spectacles, a determined chin, and galvanic energy, is herself the mother of three youngsters aged three to eight. She was supervising the regular Monday evening meeting of the Coffee A-Go-Go Teen Club when Provincial Police Corporate Ronald Forsyth interrupted to enlist her aid in the search.
Alice Salem promptly split the 38 boys and girls present at the club into three groups and dispatched them into the police and forestry trucks that were combing the outskirts of Sioux Lookout.
Not content with that, she got Mel Dalseg to let her borrow the loudspeaker car he uses to broadcast advertisements for his Mayfair movie palace.
And so she bumped over the gravel roads around town for the next two hours, in a sedan whose roof sign proclaimed the coming of Kirk Douglas in Cast A Giant Shadow, while she blared out the message: “Attention please! A little boy is lost. He was lost off the train this afternoon. He answers to the name of Danny Tower. He is two-and-a-half with blond hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a blue jacket and brown corduroy pants. If you find him, please get in touch with the police at CNR station.”
Alice Salem recalls that on her first tour about town many Sioux Lookouters were already in bed. “I really woke them up. I’d see lights go on, curtains raised, and startled faces peering out of the spruce frame houses.
“On my second tour around, people in their nightclothes were thoroughly aroused and hunting about their backyards with flashlights and cigarette lighters. And when I arrived at the station, a bigger crowd was assembled there than you’d see at a Sioux Lookout circus. Somebody from every family was there.”
Trainmaster Gordon Wright decided to infiltrate the tracks east of Sioux Lookout with an overnight search brigade of 130 volunteers, consisting of 40 teenagers and 90 adults.
Walking platoons of five would be dropped off every couple of miles from a five unit auxiliary train, made up of an engine, a sleeping car, a dining car, a supply caboose, and a gondola flat car.
Powerful search lights were rigged up like beacons at either side of the flat car. Teenage boys volunteered to hang onto the edge of the sleeper vestibule steps and while the engine crawled along at three miles an hour, they would shine flashlights down the track embankments.
Without giving thought to being paid, the town merchants chipped in supplies. Don Sanders emptied his shelves of every flashlight, battery, and sportsman lantern in his hardware store and handed them to all comers.
Garnet Czinkota, owner of the Fairway super-market, who previously had worked for the CNR for 20 years, responded unhesitatingly when he got a midnight emergency call from an old friend, CNR chef Kasink Kuwrylak. Czinkota stuffed his pajama legs into his pants, filled hampers with hams, cheeses, doughnuts, and 52 loaves of bread, and heaved them up to the auxiliary supply caboose.
To make sure that volunteers would be fed and served hot coffee properly through the night, the tireless Alice Salem took charge of the dining car. She delegated seven girl members of the teen club to act as waitresses; they worked on rotating shifts of two hours, then slept one hour.
“We girls kidded around a lot,” says Mrs. Salem’s pretty blonde sister, 16-year-old Darlene who didn’t get home to bed until 10:20 a.m. Tuesday. “But our fooling about was just to cover up our awareness of the grim job ahead. It was no picnic, I tell you.”
“It was eerie and gruesome,” says John Cole, the 18-year-old captain of a teen search platoon, who estimates he tramped more than 20 miles through gluey gumbo potholes and waist-high sow thistles.
“Your flashlight beam slitting through the dark hour after hour was hypnotic, and your eyes played odd tricks on you.”
He looked at the jagged rock cuts of granite stretching on either side of the track and the awful 20-foot bridge drop over the Sturgeon river and felt the earth tremble as five trains passing by through the night rumbled lickety-split at 85 miles an hour, and he was no longer searching for a live boy. “I kept expecting to find a corpse - a stray arm, a lost leg maybe.”
Toward dawn at 5 a.m., hope began to ebb away. It had been a warm night, but suddenly the temperature dropped to 45 above zero, a chill rain lashed down, and a northeast wind of almost hurricane fury snapped jackpines in two like toothpicks. “I had to joke and laugh real loud to raise the dropping spirits of our foot sloggers,” says Alice Salem.
At the Page home, Pearl Page stared crestfallen at the splattering drops of rain, and desperately tried to cheer up Faye Tower. After being given a sedative by Dr. John Millar from the Sioux Lookout General Hospital, Faye Tower had dozed fitfully on the sofa in the Page living room. Mrs. Page, fully dressed and totally awake, lay on the floor, her head propped on a pillow near the telephone, awaiting the crucial call from her son-in-law telegrapher Leo Mousseau at the railway station.
“Now that daylight is breaking, they’ll be sure to spot Danny,” she comforted Faye Tower over a pot of tea. “And if he’s rolled down an embankment, he’s bound to recover like a young rubber ball. My boy broke his arm at the same age - and you ought to see him play baseball today.”
Her husband John Page came home at 5:30 a.m. to change his sodden clothes and try to catch a few winks. But he couldn’t sleep. He asked Pearl to fry him some eggs, and at 8 a.m. he was back at the station, one of the fresh gang of volunteers ready to relieve the incoming crews of exhausted searchers.
Some 60 members of the overnight search party were picked up at Rosnel in the caboose of the 85 car freight train 401. Seated at the switch in her engine cab was engineer Jimmy Tennant, a railroader of most of his 40 years, the son of a CNR yardmaster, and the father of three children born and bred in Sioux Lookout to become railroaders. Tennant drove No. 401 along the tracks at a creeping pace of 30 miles an hour, and stared fixedly out the window. Even though the search bridge had patrolled the area dozens of time through the night, Tennant held fast to the hope that he might be able to locate the missing boy.
At 8:25 a.m., near the sandy base of a telegraph pole two and a half miles west of Rosnel and 13 and a half miles east of Sioux Lookout, Tennant thought he detected something stirring. He looked down the slope of the rock ballast embankment, and there in a clump of two-foot-high grass and red-berried honeysuckle and brown baby-breath weeds, crouching on his hands and knees “as though he were doing a pushup exercise” was Danny Tower.
“I’m not likely ever to forget that pale white face looking up at me so forlornly,” Tennant says. “He was bright-eyed, but blood was matted on his right forehead and congealed on top of his blond head.”
Tennant switched on the brakes so abruptly that the 85 freight cars almost slammed into each other and the volunteers in the caboose were sent flying out of their seats. “There he is!” hollered Tennant. “The missing boy!”
The engine crew dashed down into the ditch and wrapped him in their railway men jackets. Operator Bert Shasko lifted him up tenderly by the chest like he was a baby,” and handed him over to operator Bill Solomon in the engine cab, who dandled him on his knees on the fireman’s seat and kept reassuring the silent, wide-eyed boy, “Don’t be scared son. You’ll see your mom soon.”
Clerk Jim Carroll radioed the good news to the auxiliary search train, and word swiftly passed along the track all the way back to Sioux Lookout. Volunteers in their rubber hip boots danced in the rain and sang out “Danny Boy’s been found, and thank God he’s alive!”
Engineer Jimmy Tennant recalls, “About half the town was crowded on the platform by the time No. 401 pulled into the station – and not a dry eye among the lot of them.”
Pearl Page recalls, “Faye Tower was crying, and I was crying, when the freight train puffed in. Ambulance attendants stood on a railway baggage truck and they passed Danny through the window of the engine cab on a stretcher. Faye kept hugging him, and she wouldn’t let go of his hands all the way to the hospital.”
At Sioux Lookout General Hospital, the nurses promptly nicknamed Danny the Miracle Boy. The term was also used by Dr. Millar who announced that Danny was in “amazingly good condition,” suffering merely from a few scratches on the temple, a bit of exposure, and moderate scalp cuts that require about 10 stitches. “The only case of its kind,” said Dr. Millar. “I’ve seen the remains of other people who’ve fallen from a train, but they were all crushed dead. I’m a scientist, yet I’d call this rather a miracle.”
Danny’s survival and rescue were both called “a miracle” in the thanks extended to the townsfolk which town clerk Phil Salem wrote up and published in the Sioux Lookout Daily Bulletin. He agreed with his wife Alice that, “This town now enjoys a tightly-knit fellowship of the kind it never had before and after a miraculous escape just as hazardous as going over Niagara Falls without a barrel.”
How Danny fell off the train in the first place remains a mystery. On Tuesday Jim Tower took the train from Edmonton to Sioux Lookout, and the first question he asked his son in the hospital was, “What happened to Danny?”
The boy replied, “Danny fall out window.”
CNR officials contend this was impossible, because windows in its train coaches are automatically sealed tight. After visiting the spot where Danny was found, and examining all clues, Jim Tower is inclined to believe that his son may have been flung off a CNR vestibule. In the vestibule linking each coach, a black-lettered sign on the wall warns: “Standing in vestibule not permitted” – “Il est inferdit de rester sur la plateforme.”
Adult passengers, however, sometimes disregard the sign, and it is possible that one of them may have pulled open the top half of the split vestibule door to get some fresh air. Danny couldn’t have unlocked the bottom half of the door because he would have had to twist a heavy steel handle inside the vestibule and a similar door handle on the outside of the train.
Nevertheless, it would have been possible for Danny to step onto the red box stool usually kept beside each door; to put his other foot on the interior handle, and to be flung out while he was leaning over the open top-window half of the door.
There were no curves in the stretch of track where he tumbled, but the sheer momentum of the speeding train might have catapulted him down the embankment. Narrowly missing a few nasty boulders, he was lucky enough to land on a soft clay spot. He was luckier still to cushion possible concussions by rolling right into the pillow of grass and weeds, where he evidently lay unconscious and protected from the elements until discovered.
But all this is surmise, for the sole witness to the accident is not talking. Not that Danny doesn’t recognize the source of his flight through the air. As a gift, somebody presented him with a toy passenger train, The ABC Toyland Express, which whistled Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! with the turn of a key.
At first, Danny was enchanted with the plaything, and showed it off to the little Indian boy named Gus who shared the cot next to him at the Sioux Lookout hospital. But the next time the Towers visited their son, he had given the toy away to his Ojibway neighbor and would have nothing to do with it.
“What’s the matter, Danny?” asked Faye Tower. The Miracle Boy of Sioux Lookout pointed to the bandages that shrouded his scalp. “Shoo-shoo train cut Danny’s head,” he said.