Ceremony held to commemorate anniversary of deadly 1918 subway crash that killed 93
City officials, historians and FDNY “brass” met at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Empire Boulevard on Thursday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, the worst tragedy in New York City mass transit history.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams pointed out that the crash, which killed 93 people and injured more than 200, was as well known then as the events of 9/11 are today. The wreck was so traumatic that Malbone Street, the street atop the tunnel in which it happened, was renamed Empire Boulevard — the name it still goes by.
The wreck, described at the ceremony by Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, was the result of many mistakes, many of which could have been avoided. It could be described as a tragedy of errors.
To begin with, Schweiger recounted, the employees of Brooklyn Rapid Transit, the private company that operated most of Brooklyn’s subway lines at that time, had just gone on strike. To drive the fatal Brighton Beach-bound train, the BRT picked Edward Luciano, who was normally a dispatcher, not a motorman.
Normally, BRT conductors and motormen needed 120 hours of training. But because of the strike, Luciano was given a mere two hours of classroom training and no training behind the wheel.
In addition, Schweiger said, the BRT was still using wooden cars. Normally, heavy motor cars were alternated with lightweight “trailer” cars, which had no motors. But in this case, another inexperienced employee put two trailer cars together behind the lead car, making the train’s weight unstable and prone to derailment.
The Brighton Beach line at that time took a different route than it does today — the subway tunnel under Flatbush Avenue was still under construction. Instead, riders took the now-defunct Fulton Street elevated to Franklin Avenue, where the line went south over what is now the Franklin Avenue shuttle and then into today’s Brighton line.
Leading into the Prospect Park station was a sharp “S” curve that is no longer used, said Schweiger. In those days, trains had no headlights, and the underpass through which Luciano drove the train was dark because it was almost 7 p.m. A sign warned motormen not to go more than 5 mph, but Luciano, who was going 30 mph, wasn’t able to see it.
The lead car jumped the track and the wooden trailer cars were smashed against the concrete wall. Ebbets Field, a few blocks away, was turned into a “triage” center. Fourteen of the victims were buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.
The victims, most of whom lived in Flatbush and Ditmas Park, ranged from 18-year-old Raymond Lewis Payne, who lived with his parents on Avenue H, to Edward Erskine Porter, a bond broker who lived on Caton Avenue.
Andy Byford, head of MTA New York City Transit, the division of MTA that runs the city’s subways and buses, described how the horror of the crash led to safety improvements in the subway system.
Steel cars replaced wooden cars by the late 1920s, he said. New, improved clamps hold the rails onto the ties more securely. The “tripcock” device, not yet invented at the time of the Malbone Street wreck, automatically stops a train if the motorman goes through a red signal.
Similarly, FDNY Chief of Department James E. Leonard said trainees at the Fire Department Academy are taught underground rail safety, and the academy has a two-station subway simulator. Conditions were very different at the time of the 1918 wreck — firefighters had to set pieces of wood on fire just to create enough light to look into the tunnel.
At the end of the ceremony, those attending, led by Adams, walked a short distance to the B and Q train’s Prospect Park station, where they laid a wreath commemorating the disaster. Also at the ceremony were representatives of the Parks Department, the New York Transit Museum, Green-Wood Cemetery and more.
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