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Posted Thursday November 1, 2007 07:00 AM EDT

Death in the Subway

By David Rapp

The remains of the Malbone Street Wreck sit in the tunnel where nearly 100 passengers met their deaths, November 4, 1918.
The remains of the Malbone Street Wreck sit in the tunnel where nearly 100 passengers met their deaths, November 4, 1918.

On Friday, November 1, 1918, the deadliest rapid-transit crash in American history occurred in Brooklyn, New York. An elevated train driven by an unqualified and inexperienced motorman derailed in a tunnel and killed nearly 100 rush-hour commuters. The accident is largely forgotten today, but it was an enormous shock at the time.

New York City’s rapid-transit system was one of the first in the country, dating back to the 1860s. The Brighton Beach Line—the line of the Malbone Street Wreck—had been running since 1878. The safety of the city’s trains, however, was spotty at best. On August 7, 1899, The New York Times contained seven separate stories of mass-transit-related injuries in one day—including the tragedy of a seven-year-old whose legs had been severed by a Brooklyn train. Nevertheless by 1918 the city’s subways and elevated lines were used by some 2 million passengers per day.

The trains were controlled by a patchwork of private companies. In Brooklyn, one of the major players was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. Like many others, the BRT was staunchly anti-union, but that didn’t deter union organizers from signing up many motormen and other employees. In retaliation, the BRT fired three dozen workers for union activities. That in turn triggered a strike, on November 1, 1918. The BRT scrambled to find replacement motormen to keep the trains running.

Edward Luciano, a 25-year-old dispatcher for the BRT, was brought in as a temporary motorman to fill in for strikers. He was just recovering from influenza, and his three-year-old daughter had died from the disease a few days before. He had only had a few days’ training as a motorman, and he had no experience at all on the Brighton Line, which had a number of inclines and curves that challenged even the most experienced operators. He was assigned to operate the train during the busiest time of day, the evening rush hour, when it was packed with passengers returning home to Brooklyn from their Manhattan jobs.

Luciano had trouble even before the crash; many of the surviving passengers said the train had traveled abnormally fast throughout the route. At 6:42 p.m., near Prospect Park, the train approached a tunnel in which there was a sharp S-curve. A sign posted outside the tunnel marked the speed limit as 6 miles an hour, but the train was going at least 30. If Luciano saw the sign at all, he saw it far too late to brake in time.

Two of the wooden subway cars, the second and third, flew off the rails and slammed into a concrete partition in the tunnel. The second car was reduced to splinters by the impact, and the third was severely damaged. The lead car, where Luciano was, was relatively unhurt. When he managed to finally stop the train, the lead car was half outside the tunnel exit. A stunned passenger asked him what had happened. “I don’t know,” he reportedly said. “I lost control of the damn thing. That’s all.” By the time rescue workers reached the scene, Luciano had run off. He would be apprehended at his home by police later that evening, with no recollection of leaving the accident scene and no knowledge of how he had gotten home. When a reporter asked him why he had allowed himself to be installed as a motorman, a job for which he was obviously unsuited, he replied, “A man has to earn a living.”

The crash site was a scene of devastation. Eight-six people were declared dead at the scene. The cause of death for most was severe head trauma caused from slamming against the side of the car; some were beheaded. Another seven would die later of their injuries, bringing the final death toll to 93. Of the survivors, more than 100 were injured or maimed. About 50 passengers with less serious injuries were treated at a temporary aid station set up at nearby Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.

That night the BRT and the employees’ union quickly reached an agreement to end the strike, but New Yorkers citywide were outraged by the seemingly avoidable disaster. Mayor John Francis Hylan, who had long been a fierce opponent of privately owned subway companies, focused his inquiry on the BRT. He may have been carrying a personal grudge. He had been fired by a predecessor company of the BRT years earlier, a fact he was more than happy to share with anyone who asked.

Other New York politicians made hay of the disaster for their own ends. The next day a full-page newspaper ad urged New Yorkers voting in the following Tuesday’s election to “turn out” the governor who had appointed the state’s subway safety commission. The ad was a political ploy, paid for by The Citizens’ Committee for Alfred E. Smith. The ambitious Smith was the underdog in the upcoming governor’s race against the Republican incumbent, Charles S. Whitman. Bad publicity surrounding the Malbone Street Wreck may have contributed to Smith’s narrow victory. (Smith would later prove so popular in New York that he would run as the Democratic candidate for President in 1928, the first Catholic or Irish-American ever to do so; he was soundly defeated by Herbert Hoover.)

Following the mayor’s inquiry, Luciano and four BRT officials were arrested. The BRT, which had been struggling financially before the crash, was hit with dozens of lawsuits from victims and their families. The settlements eventually totaled about $1.6 million—more than $24 million in today’s dollars. The company was forced into receivership in December 1918, and as a result, many of the families received no money for years.

Public sentiment in the city, and in Brooklyn especially, ran high against the BRT and its management. At one gathering of the newly formed Brighton Elevated Wreck Victims and Passengers’ Protective Association, crowds chanted “Kill them! Shoot them!” when the BRT was mentioned. Unsurprisingly, the company pushed for a change of venue for the criminal trials of Luciano and his colleagues, claiming that BRT officials could never get a fair hearing in Brooklyn. Despite the strong opposition of the mayor and many Brooklyn residents, the trials were moved to Mineola, on Long Island. Luciano broke down crying on the stand during his trial, but he insisted he had followed BRT procedures to the letter—an assertion clearly contradicted by the evidence, which indicated that the emergency brakes were never engaged. Despite this, he was acquitted of wrongdoing. The BRT officials who had put him and other unqualified men at the controls were also acquitted or had their charges dismissed. In more than two years of trials, no one was convicted of any crime related to the Malbone Street Wreck.

One good thing did come out of the disaster: By 1919 new safety equipment had been installed on all subway and elevated cars, including a device that would automatically brake cars that were going too fast down an incline or into a tunnel. By 1940 the trains were all owned and operated by the city, and safety equipment and procedures had been standardized. There have been minor subway accidents in New York since then—including two near the site of the Malbone Street Wreck, in 1920 and 1974—but none has been remotely as horrible as the one that happened on November 1, 1918.

Today it’s hard to find much evidence of the crash that shocked the city. The track on which the Malbone Street Wreck occurred is no longer in use, and almost all of Malbone Street itself was renamed Empire Boulevard in hopes of shaking off its association with the crash. Just a very small section of Malbone Street survives. It’s the only monument, if solely in name, to the tragedy that happened nearby 89 years ago.

David Rapp has written about history for American Heritage, Technology Review, and Out.

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