January 22: This Date in Los Angeles Transportation History

1956:  The Los Angeles Police Department and local media broadcast one of the very first “SigAlerts” following the worst train wreck in city history.

The alert was triggered by the accident of a passenger train which had departed Union Station and derailed at Redondo Junction, southwest of Boyle Heights.

The accident killed 30 people and injured 117.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the two-car train and locomotive were approaching a 15 mile per hour curve at  70 miles per hour.

Image courtesy of Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive.

The alert requested any available doctors and nurses to respond to the scene. Too many doctors, nurses, and sightseers drove there, making the situation worse.

Hundreds of volunteers lined up to give blood, others created bumper-to-bumper traffic along Washington Boulevard, while looters stole jewelry, money, and other valuables from the dead and injured.

It was the first major disaster in the Los Angeles area covered by live television.

Former U.S Army Signal Corps engineer Lloyd C. ‘Sig’ Sigmon (1909-2004), working for Gene Autry’s KMPC Radio, had developed a specialized radio receiver and reel-to-reel tape recorder that records Los Angeles Police Department dispatch information on traffic-accidents.  The information was then broadcast to steer listeners around accidents.

The first SigAlert is attributed to Labor Day Weekend, 1955, but many stories erroneously place the birth date as January 22, 1955.  Today SigAlert is used by Caltrans throughout California and is defined as “any unplanned event that causes the closing of one lane of traffic for 30 minutes or more.”  In 1998, when Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol opens their Freeway Traffic Center in Los Angeles, Sigmon attends as their special Guest of Honor.

“SigAlert” does not have a standardized spelling. Caltrans has used “SIG Alert,” “SigAlert,” and “Sigalert” over the years.  In 1993, the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

More information can be found in the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive’s article titled “Bad Night at Redondo Junction,” and the February 6, 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times recounting the accident.