Crown Heights

101 years later, deadliest subway crash in New York remembered

A permanent plaque has been installed to honor victims

November 1, 2019 Raanan Geberer
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.

A year after the 100th anniversary of the deadly Malbone Street subway wreck, which killed 93 people and injured more than 200 others, a bronze plaque was installed on Friday on the wall of the outdoor plaza leading to the B and Q lines’ Prospect Park station, near where the deadly crash took place.

If you can’t find “Malbone Street” on a map, there’s a reason for that. The street had such a bad connotation after the wreck, which was the worst disaster in New York City transit history, that its name was changed to Empire Boulevard. One block of Malbone Street still survives under its original name in Crown Heights.

“With this plaque and street co-naming, we are honoring the victims of the horrific Malbone Street Wreck, and honoring our history, so New Yorkers for generations to come can learn what happened here,” said  Borough President Eric Adams. Adams advocated for and helped fund the plaque’s installation.

The crash was indirectly the result of a strike by the employees of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system, which owned most of the transit lines in Brooklyn in those days. At the time, the Brighton Beach line was accessed by what is now the Franklin Avenue shuttle, connected to the long-defunct Fulton Street elevated line.

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Nov. 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, the worst tragedy in New York City mass transit history. Photos courtesy of the New York Transit Museum
Nov. 1 marked the 101st anniversary of the Malbone Street wreck, the worst tragedy in New York City mass transit history. Photos courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

Because of the strike, young, inexperienced dispatcher Edward Luciano, whose only experience in the conductor’s booth had been switching some cars in the yards, was pressed into service as a motorman. In addition, he was upset because several days earlier, his infant daughter had died as a result of the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic. He had only received about three hours of training. Even then, the norm was 90 hours.

He couldn’t control the train’s speed and, by the time the train reached the sharp “S” curve where the accident occurred, it was going 30 mph in a 5-mph zone.

The fact that the BRT used wooden cars in those days made the crash more deadly. The accident led to tighter safety regulations underground and more required training for motormen. It sounded the death knell for wooden subway cars.

As of this past May, the Brooklyn Borough President’s office was still waiting for a cost estimate from the MTA so that it could proceed with a plaque. Adams had written to MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford soon after a similar ceremony that marked the disaster’s 100th anniversary, asking for a cost estimate for the siting of a permanent plaque to commemorate the disaster.


Later, after not hearing from the MTA, Adams sent a follow-up letter that was also signed by more than 25 heavy hitters in the Brooklyn political, cultural and institutional worlds.

The Borough President’s Office itself provided the majority, about $1,500, of the money for the plaque that was finally mounted on Friday, a spokesperson for Adams told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“This was a tragic incident that we’ve never forgotten and there have been extensive safety and technological advancements in the hundred years since that have collectively worked to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Byford during Friday’s ceremony.

Afterward the event, participants walked to the northeastern corner of Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard, where they also unveiled a new sign for Malbone Centennial Way.

 


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