Malbone Street Wreck (New York Times, 1918)

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Location: Empire Blvd. (Malbone St.) Tunnel Portal

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The New York Times · Saturday, November 2, 1918

SCORES KILLED, MANY HURT ON B.R.T. First Car Crashes Into Tunnel Pier and Other Cars Grind It to Splinters. INJURED MAY REACH 100. Dispatcher, as Strike Motorman, Sends Crowded Train to Doom at 70 Miles an Hour. TO ARREST B.R.T. OFFICIALS. Rescue Hindered by Jam of Debris In Narrow Tunnel-- Hardly a Soul Escapes from First Car.

A Brighton Beach Train of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, made up of five wooden cars of the oldest type in use, which was speeding with a rush hour crowd to make up lost time on its way from Park Row to Coney Island, jumped the track shortly before 7 o'clock last evening on a sharp curve approaching the tunnel at Malbone Street, in Brooklyn, and plunged into a concrete partition between the north and south bound tracks.

Nearly every man, women, and child in the first car was killed, and most of those in the second were killed or badly injured. Rescue work in the wreckage, jammed into the narrow tunnel, was extremely difficult, and the counting of the dead proceeded slowly. At 11 o'clock eighty-five bodies had been taken from the wreckage, and the police announced that no more bodies were in the tunnel. The names of many of the injured were not obtained, but the police estimate that at least 100 had been injured.

District Attorney Lewis announced at midnight that the train was being run by a train dispatcher. This man had been pressed into service in the rush hour because of the strike of motormen, which began in the early morning. At 2 o'clock this morning, as a result of the wreck, the motormen called off the strike, leaving the adjustment of their grievances to the Public Service Commission. The District Attorney ordered all the officials of the B.R.T who could have been responsible, and members of the train crew put under arrest. He said the B.R.T. officials had withheld the name of the man who was operating the train.

Mayor Hylan arrived at the Snyder Avenue Police Station shortly after midnight and consulted with District Attorney Lewis and Commissioner Enright as to what steps should be taken in ordering the arrest of the officials of the B.R.T.

Just before one o'clock this morning, the missing motorman, Anthony Lewis, who is 29 years old, was arrested at his home, 100 Thirty-third Street, Brooklyn, by Detectives McCord and Conroy, and brought to the Snyder Avenue station, where he was immediately taken into a room to be questioned by the District Attorney, Mayor Hylan, and the Police Commissioner.

After Motorman Lewis had been escorted to the Snyder Avenue Station and questioned, it was stated that his story indicated criminal negligence in hiring him to run the train. Mayor Hylan said:

"This man confessed that he had never run a train over that Brighton Beach line before. He also admitted that when running around that curve, he was making a speed of thirty miles an hour."

A post on the curve warns motormen not to go faster than six miles an hour in this part of the road. When he was asked at the examination why he had taken a job for which he was unfitted, Motorman Lewis replied: "A man has to earn a living." He said that the only experience he had had in running a motor was in switching about a year ago, but that he had been taking instruction for two days on the B.R.T. before running the train yesterday.

On the way to Flatbush the motorman said he had no intention of running away. He said he remembered nothing until he found himself at home, following the accident. He does not know how he managed to get out of the wreck, nor how he got home. He says he has an indistinct recollection of having boarded a trolley car but cannot remember what car it was. He was seated in a chair, pale as death, when the detectives reached his home. He was very nervous and seemed to be on the verge of a collapse.

After the conference with District Attorney Lewis at the Snyder Avenue Police Station, Mayor Hylan said:

"I have ordered Police Commissioner Enright to station policemen at every terminal and carbarn from which trains leave, with instructions not to permit any green motormen to take out a train. No man will be permitted to run a train, unless he has had at least three months experience."

Mayor Hylan said that he did not wish to discuss the legal and possible criminal phases of the accident until he had completed his investigation.

District Attorney Lewis, after his conference with Mayor Hylan said:

"I have ordered Colonel Timothy s. Williams, the president of the B.R.T. and Vice President John J. Dempsey to appear at my office today and give me an explanation of Lewis's running the train".

A few minutes before the accident the motorman missed a switch, according to passengers, went some distance on a wrong track and then backed up and switched again to the Brighton Beach line for Coney Island. After that the train moved at such high speed as to frighten many passengers. Some thought the motorman had lost control of the train, and others supposed he was going at unprecedented speed to make up for time he had lost. A naval officer who was a passenger said the train was making fully seventy miles an hour when it left the track.

Rams Concrete Partition.

The first car left the rails a few feet in front of the opening of the tunnel and rammed one end of a concrete partition separating the northbound from the southbound tracks. It was thrown at right angles across the roadbed in front of the entrance to the tunnel. The other cars cut right through it, the second car smashing it to bits and the whole train passing over the wreckage and coming to a stop 200 feet down the tracks inside the tunnel.

Packed together as in a box without structural strength to give them any protection, the passengers in the first car were crushed and cut to pieces. Not one is believed to have escaped. After breaking through the first car, the rest of the train dashed it against the partition wall and strewed wreckage and passengers along the tracks ahead, where the wheels of the cars following passed over them. Only splintered fragments of wood and broken and twisted bits of iron and steel remained of the first car.

The second and third cars, leaving the rails after their impact with the first, ran sidewise into a series of iron pillars supporting the roof of the tunnel at intervals beside the partition. The pillars cut great gashes in the sides of the cars, which were still traveling at high speed, and mowed down the passengers who were standing striking the heads of some from their bodies.

The left sides of the second and third cars were stripped away. Scores of men, women, and children were flung by the impact out of these cars against pillars and the concrete wall, where they were killed instantly or ground under the wheels after falling back upon the tracks. Some who were not flung from the car were killed inside when they fell upon the broken iron of seats, splintered timbers and iron beams which projected through the shattered bottoms of the car. Passengers on the platforms were nearly all killed instantly. One dead man was found impaled on a broken bar of iron, which had run underneath the car, but which broke and shot up into the air like a javelin in the crash.

Firemen who took part in the rescue work said the second and third cars had fallen over so that one side formed the floor, and the passengers were heaped upon one another, some dead some dying, some slightly injured and some unhurt, but all so tightly gripped in the wreckage and so menaced by steel and wooden splinters that movement was impossible. Bodies were found with only slight marks of injures, indicating death by suffocation. Small fires were reported to have started but these, it was said, lasted only long enough to cause terror to still conscious persons imprisoned in the wreckage.

Most of the passengers in the two rear cars escaped without serious injury, although nearly every one was cut by glass or bruised when thrown from his seat. They were packed so tightly in these two cars that the force of the shock was broken. Women became hysterical when they learned what had happened in the front cars.

The rear cars were without light, and when the passengers made their way into the tunnel, they found themselves in total darkness. Many who tried to reach the forward cars in answer to the cries of the injured found their way cut off by masses of broken wood and twisted steel which barred the entrance to the second and third cars. There was no access to eitehr of these cars and no means of escape for the survivors, who were pinned by broken seats or jutting timbers from the roof, sides, and floor of the car, so that they could not move. Some were pressed against dead bodies, and others jammed until they were smothered against wounded or fainting passengers

Delay in Rescue Work

Because of the position and the nature of the accident there was a delay in spreading the alarm and police and firemen were not notified for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was nearly three-quarters of an hour before an organized attempt at rescue could be made.

The word that a terrible accident had occurred, with little detail as to the place, or time, spread quickly over the borough. As a large part of the people in Brooklyn have fathers, husbands, sons, and daughters traveling home in the rush hours thousands of persons were alarmed. When the place of the accident became generally known great crowds gathered there trying to learn the fate of friends or to satisfy curiosity, and the work of the police and fireman was for a time greatly embarrassed by those who crowded forward as bodies were being lifted up the side of the open cut which approached the tunnel.

Reserves from six precincts were sent to keep back the throngs which filled the streets near the wreck and ambulances arrived from every hospital in the borough. Scores of doctors and nurses were sent from the Department of Charities. Aid was given promptly by women and ambulances of the Women's Motor Corps of America. Women of the motor corps went into the tunnel to aid in carrying out the injured women and children. Some of the desperately injured breathed their last in the arms of these women.

District Attorney Harry E. Lewis of Kings County and Police Commissioner Enright, who started an inquiry into the causes of the wreck at the Snyder Avenue Police Station with Timothy S. Williams, president and other officials and Messrs. Whitney, Kracke and Hervey of the Public Service Commission present, expressed the positive opinion that the accident was caused by the negligence of the motorman of the wrecked train.

Due to Recklessness

"The accident was undoubtedly due to the negligence and to the recklessness of the motorman," said Mr. Lewis. "This man was drafted from another department to run this train, and we are searching for him. He disappeared immediately after the accident and apparently he was aided in making his escape. We are searching also for the other men who were in charge of the train."

"From information in my possession he was traveling at a highly excessive rate of speed around this curve and disregarded the signals. When his car jumped the track the second, third, and forth cars were buckled and smashed. These three cars were old-fashioned wooden coaches, and at least twenty-five years old. The first and fifth cars of the five car train were motor cars, but they were of wood like the others."

"All five cars were loaded to the gates with people. Directly after the accident happened the motorman, Lewis, disappeared and I heard that he had been spirited away by one of the claims adjustors in the employ of the B.R.T. I have ordered his arrest, and sent a notification to the company to produce the man forthwith. I also went to the home of Turner, the conductor of the train who was in his bed under police surveillance suffering from an injury to his hip received in the accident. Turner said the train was going at a fast rate around the curve. Lewis was known as a train dispatcher at Brighton Beach and it was his first trip with a train".

Mayor Hylan visited the scene of the wreck last night, went down the ladder and into the tunnel, where he viewed the wreckage, from which bodies and parts of bodies were still being taken. His first remark was: "Wooden cars." Later he said: "I believe this this is the result of employing an inexperienced motorman and the use of all wooden cars. I shall make an investigation tomorrow and see if the B.R.T. cannot be compelled to stop using 'green' motormen."

He left the accident to go to the Flatbush Avenue Police Station to confer with District Attorney Lewis.

Commissioner Enright went to the wreck to direct the police, in their efforts to find the names of the men who were running the train. They found none of the officials of the transit company were able to give them the names because the regular men were not in their places on account of the strike. The police reported to the Commissioner that officials of the B.R.T and employees as well had showed disinclination to aid in discovering the names of the motorman and guards.

By direction of the Commissioner and District Attorney Lewis, Acting Captain Jon Coughlin, in command of the Sixth Branch Detective Bureau, confined the efforts of his men last night to search for the motorman and other employees.

Police and firemen, making their way by the light of lanterns into the tunnel. and moving cautiously among wreckage and dead bodies, chopped openings into the second and third cars and then began the painful task of lifting wounded men, women, and children from the tangle of steel, glass and sharp splinters which stuck out like bayonets in all directions, some of the having already pierced those in the cars.

Those able to walk or to be helped along were carried to a concrete buttress at the right ride of the cut which made a path about two feet wide and sloping inward. Those not badly injured were supported up a ladder running up the side of the open cut to the street. One woman, who had escaped uninjured from one of the cars which had suffered least, fell from the ladder, but was caught by a fireman just below her.

Cradles of burlap were made for the recovered bodies. These were made fast by ropes and hoisted by firemen and policemen to the street level, where they were laid out in rows and then carried to police stations.

While surgeons were hastily binding wounds by lantern light, inside the tunnel, priests were administering last rites to the dying and to bodies of those apparently killed instantly, but in whom it was thought possible that a spark of life might linger.

Thousands Seek Friend

Tens of thousands of men and women went to the police stations where the bodies were taken, The number of those fearing they had lost relatives made the identification of the dead a slow and difficult process in the midst of affecting scenes. The bodies were finally removed to the Kings County Morgue.

The telephone service in Brooklyn was overburdened until communication was almost impossible by thousands of families seeking news of members who came home by this line and had not arrived. The wreckage put an end to Brighton Beach traffic, holding up tens of thousands on trains which followed it. Many of those who were delayed had to take long walks to overcrowded street cars, that that practically all the ordinary travelers on this line, who did not get through the tunnel before the wreck, were an hour too two late in getting home. In the meantime their families had in many cases become alarmed and had gone to the place of the wreck in search of news, so that their reunion did not take place until late in the evening, after many hours of suspense and dread.

Those fearful that they had lost relatives in the wreck reported them as missing at the police stations nearest the accident, and the list soon grew to several hundred. Most of the detectives in Brooklyn were put to work by Police Commissioner Enright aiding in the identification of bodies. Many of the bodies were in such a state that identification may never be made. Women and girls, it is thought will be in the majority when the list of the dead is finally made up.

For a long time last night Charles Ebbets Jr., was very uncertain as to the fate of his father, the President of the Brooklyn Baseball Club. The young man was to have met his father at Ebbets Field about the time the collision occurred, and he feared that the elder Ebbets might have been on board the ill-fated train. The young man after working the telephone for an hour or so, was finally able to get tidings of his father, who was making a four-minute speech in the War Savings Stamp campaign. The young man threw open Ebbets Field for the treatment of the less seriously injured. About fifty of those not badly injured were attended there by physicians who had volunteered for this work.

A Survivor's Story

Walter H. Simonson, a civil engineer and President of the American Lead Burning Company at 30 Church Street, who was a passenger in the third car of the train, said the wreck was caused in his opinion by the speed maintained by the motorman on the curved tracks leading into the subway beneath Malbone Street, at the approach to the new station at Prospect Park. Mr Simonson, who lives at 935 East Thirteenth Street, Flatbush, gave this account of his experience in the wreck:

"I entered the car at the Flatbush station, At the Franklin Avenue Station, where the tracks curve away from the Fulton Street tracks, and which the train should have followed, the motorman, instead continued upon the Fulton line for a block or more. The the train was backed across a switch to the Park Row tracks, and thence onto another switch, and finally over to the Coney Island tracks. Instantly the speed of the train was increased, even at the curve at the Franklin Avenue Station, so much so that many of the passengers showed nervousness."

"At the Park Place station where the tracks begin on a down grade, the motorman seemed to continue the same speed, apparently to make up for the delay at the Franklin Avenue switch, and this speed continued at the curve to the entrance of the tunnel. As the wheels hit the tracks of this curve under Malbone Street I felt the car rise from the rails and turn partly over, striking against the concrete pier at the entrance to the tunnel with such force as to tear out the entire side of the car."

"The left side of the car crumpled against the concrete wall. The car seats were torn apart and the men and women jammed among them, and down on them came the roof of the car. We sideswiped the wall for a car length or more before the train was stopped. My head bumped against a wooden column in the side of the car that was not demolished with all the other woodwork, but this protected me from contact with the concrete wall."

"Every light in the car was extinguished. When I partly recovered my dazed senses I found myself pinned down at the neck with a beam from the roof. I got free and assisted two men to get out through a window on the opposite side. His the cars been of steel construction instead of wood such an accident could not have had such disastrous results."

Mr. Simonson said the car was crowded, many of the men and women standing.

Crash Heard a Mile Away

The series of crashes that demolished the train against the immovable sides of the narrow tube in which it was traveling was heard for blocks, and policemen on post near Flatbush Police Station in Snyder Avenue, almost a mile away from the enclosed tube, reported to the superiors in the station their belief that a great accident had occurred somewhere in Prospect Park.

Thousands of persons living in the vicinity heard the noise, and those within a few blocks of the tube heard the cries of the injured a few moments after the demolition had ceased. Immediately the station employees on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit and all the near-by stations, as well as policemen and civilians who had heard the noise sent telephone calls to the police and fire stations.

The policemen and firemen did not reach the open breach where the road enters the tunnel before hundreds of civilians, and the police had difficulty driving back the crowds. All this added to the general confusion, and before the police had been able to drive the crowds back other thousands, from trains that had been stopped at other stations along the line for passengers to alight, ran to the tunnels only to form an immense barricade against the efforts of the policemen, the firemen and others who were trying to beat their way into the tunnel to aid the injured.

Exerting great efforts under the direction of Inspector Murphy, in charge of the police for the borough, the police managed in time to drive back the crowds so that the rescuers worked without being hampered, but occasionally a person anxious about the safety of a relative would break through the lines and run to the tunnel.

The first man to emerge from the tunnel was almost divested of clothing. His coat and trousers had been ripped from him; he had only one shoe, and was without hat, collar, and tie. His face was bleeding from many gashes and is left arm was useless. The crowd divided for him to pass through and before the police could get his name he was taken into an ambulance bu a surgeon from the Kings County Hospital and hurried away.

Before many minutes had passed scores of persons, most of them men, struggled out of the tube with the assistance of policemen, and other who had made their way through to the high piled wreckage. Many others injured did not have enough strength to leave the tube and lay upon the concrete emergency walk at the sides of the tunnel, helpless.

Officials of the Edison Company heard of the difficulty of the work in the dark, and gangs of men were sent to set up a system of emergency lights. For more than a block around the entrances of each end of the tube was made as light as if searchlights were playing.

The first rescuers found that they would be unable to give much assistance to the injured or to bring out the bodies at once, because the wreckage was jammed so tightly into the tube that no crevice or opening was left. They had to tear away the debris piece by piece, to uncover the bodies and to release the injured. As they worked, carrying the wreckage out at the mouth of the tube they found parts of human bodies, with purses, books, newspapers, broken packages, shreds of apparel, and here and there some breakable article that remained unbroken and unscratched.

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