On the Celtic feast of Samhain, (we call it Hallowe'en), it was the Irish custom to set a place for the dead and talk about the ancestors. Curiously, that is just what I did this morning.
These are the tracks of the Brighton line, today's B and Q subway, as they run south from the Prospect Park station. Ninety years ago tomorrow, at least 93 souls perished hideously, moments before their train would have exited the station and headed south toward the Brooklyn beaches. Yes, tomorrow—All Saints' Day, or the Day of the Dead—is the 90th anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, the worst disaster in New York transit history. It took place right beneath the periphery of the park's Willink entrance (the one by the carousel), and today I set out in search of some trace of it.
There are no plaques memorializing the victims of the disaster in the renovated Prospect Park station. This graffiti'd fence inside an MTA parking lot, at the intersection of Flatbush and Ocean Avenues and Empire Boulevard, blocks the view of the tunnel from which the dazed (but uninjured) motorman staggered out onto the tracks after the derailment and crash. As I left the lot, I asked an MTA conductor who was standing around if he had ever heard of the Malbone Street wreck.
No, never heard of it, he said.
He looked guarded and skeptical as befits anyone who works the subways for a living, but in the spirit of Samhain, I told him the story of what happened in the evening rush hour of Saturday, November 1, 1918, beneath our feet.
Thanks to a strike that morning, the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad (forerunner of the BMT line) rushed an inexperienced and minimally trained motorman into service--a young man just recovering from influenza during that infamous epidemic, which had claimed his own 3-year-old daughter just the previous week. The train consisted of wooden cars, which had to approach the Prospect Park station along a hairpin turn at the foot of a steep downgrade (along today's Franklin Avenue shuttle line). The greenhorn conductor successfully navigated the train from Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge, but for reasons never established, he allowed the train to accelerate to at least 30 m.p.h. on a curve posted for a maximum of 6 m.p.h. Survivors knew even before the impact that something was terribly wrong. What happened next, according to the New York Times:
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… 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 crash was heard a mile away. It took close to 45 minutes for emergency responders to begin rescue efforts:
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.
The Kings County Hospital morgue, already taxed by the flu epidemic, annexed a laundry room for the tide of victims, and triage was performed at nearby Ebbets Field. In patterns we know all too well, family and friends of the missing descended in droves to seek information about loved ones, while politicians converged to start demanding answers and the train company officials started to stonewall and spin. The conductor, one Edward Luciano, was found back in his home and arrested, although neither he nor any of the railway officials would ever be convicted of any charges relating to the wreck.
The tunnel and tracks where the train met its doom are still there, but the actual section of tracks (on the local side) are used only rarely. The wreck was an indelible tragedy for generations of Brooklynites, but today is all but forgotten except for this book and some excellent references on Forgotten New York.
And the trains are no longer able to speed uncontrollably, said the conductor I spoke to; sensors in the rails detect whether the speed is excessively high and enforce the limit. Tomorrow, a little more on the scene of mayhem, 90 years later.