100 Years After New York’s Deadliest Subway Crash

At 6:14 p.m., on Friday, Nov. 1, 1918, hundreds of weary New Yorkers boarded a Brooklyn Rapid Transit train at Park Row in Lower Manhattan for the ride home to Brooklyn.

Some would have to return to work on Saturday morning, but the rest had endured another workweek, and all of them had survived the deadliest month of the influenza pandemic. Each day, reports from the war in Europe seemed more promising, too, but war news still filled that morning’s New York Times front page, except for some small ads at the bottom.

At least one of them vaguely augured what would dominate the next day’s news:

The makers of Calox tooth powder were offering customers a free guide to the city’s subway system, which was undergoing an expansion that, among public works projects, rivaled the recently-opened Panama Canal.

As it is today, so it was 100 years ago: Subways would continue to operate during construction work. When a train left Park Row, the terminal across from City Hall, the following afternoon, it was still twilight thanks to Daylight Saving Time, imposed for the duration of the war. But when the 30-year-old wooden cars rumbled across Brooklyn Bridge, over the Fulton Street El and finally descended into the open cut adjoining Prospect Park, there was nothing but pitch blackness; the car in the front did not have headlights to illuminate the tunnel ahead.

At 6:42 p.m., 28 minutes after it left Park Row, the train carrying 650 passengers slammed into a concrete abutment as it rounded a sharp curve approaching the Malbone Street station in Flatbush. Nearly 100 riders died and another 250 were injured in what remains New York City’s worst subway accident and arguably the worst train crash in American history.

“On the basis of faulty assumptions and a perfectly understandable desire to keep the trains rolling,” Brian Cudahy wrote in “The Malbone Street Wreck” (1999), “the B.R.T. awkwardly, tragically and stupidly stumbled into the worst mistake in the history of American urban transportation.”

The Malbone Street disaster of exactly 100 years ago stunned New Yorkers not only because it produced so many fatalities and injuries, but also because it was so preventable.

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After the crash, many passengers were imprisoned in a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood splinters, glass shards and iron beams projecting like bayonets.CreditNew York Transit Museum

Like today, the state — in the form of the Public Service Commission — was largely responsible for the subway system, which, at the time, was run by two private lines, the B.R.T. (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) and the I.R.T. (Interborough Rapid Transit).

Even before the crash, critics complained of lax oversight of the profit-making lines, which had already been cutting corners because elected officials insisted on maintaining the five-cent fare. The Malbone Street wreck could have been easily avoided if the appropriate technology, which was available at the time, had been put in place.

After the accident, timed signals and automatic braking mechanisms were installed on most curves and inclines (all trains would not be equipped with speedometers or even headlights until decades later, though). Which is why when a train derailed at the very same site in 1974, six passengers were only slightly injured and the accident was blamed on a faulty switch. Had the motorman been barreling downhill toward the deadly curve, he would have been stopped by improved safety features.

“Thankfully there have been extensive safety and technological advancements in the hundred years since,” said Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit Authority, “in track, signal and car design, as well as in training and operating practices — that have collectively worked together to prevent something like this from happening again.”

The 1918 crash also prompted the formation of a city Transit Commission in 1921, which would lead a decade later to the first municipally-owned subway (the Independent Line).

The 6:14 train was being driven by a 25-year-old railroad clerk (officially, a crew dispatcher, who had already worked a 10-hour day shift), who was born as Antonio Edward Luciano but known to his colleagues as Billy Lewis.

He had been recruited as a scab motorman during a strike by locomotive engineers protesting the B.R.T.’s failure to follow the War Labor Board’s order to rehire 29 employees fired for their union activities.

He had received all of two and a half hours of classroom lessons as a motorman for a life-or-death job that ordinarily demanded no less than 90 hours of instruction and hands-on training.

The tunnel near Malbone Street station.CreditNew York Transit Museum

He had never driven this route before or even operated a passenger train. He said he had not been informed that the tunnel entrance had been recently reconfigured into a difficult-to-navigate S-curve.

Moreover, Mr. Luciano’s physical and emotional state when he reported for work that morning must have been precarious, another omen that might have been divined from two other ads on The Times’ front page that morning: one, for a wheat gruel that promised to restore the “wasted tissue” of patients who withstood influenza, and a second for a lozenge to ward it off.

That Tuesday, Mr. Luciano had buried the second of his three daughters who had died from the pandemic. He was apparently recovering from a bout of the flu himself.

And as unprepared as Mr. Luciano was on his maiden run as a motorman, the equipment itself was defective.

Its five cars were incorrectly coupled: two of the lighter ones were placed together, which intensified the impact of the crash and produced more casualties.

A blown fuse had disabled the identifying colored signal lights on the front car, so the tower operator at Franklin Avenue failed to switch the train to the Brighton Beach Line (now the D and Q) tracks. Backing the train up to correct the mistake took an extra eight minutes — another setback for the novice motorman, who was already behind schedule and hoping to impress his bosses with his punctuality.

Mr. Luciano stopped at Dean Street and Prospect Park, but perhaps to save time, bypassed the Consumers Park station, which meant that he may never have applied the brakes as the train descended a 70-foot incline from Crown Heights to the tunnel in an open cut near the Willink Entrance to Prospect Park.

Motormen were supposed to slow to 6 miles per hour to accommodate the serpentine curve, but had he seen the speed limit sign it would have been too late to decelerate. Mr. Luciano was said to have been going closer to 30 m.p.h. as he thundered into the tunnel.

Wooden cars were banned after the accident.CreditNew York Transit Museum

The front cab remained intact into the turn, but the back wheels of the first car derailed. The second and third cars smashed into the tunnel wall, triggering a suffocating eruption that imprisoned passengers in a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood splinters, glass shards and iron beams projecting like bayonets.

One passenger, Charles Darling, a lawyer, was so terrified by the speeding train that moments before the crash he instinctively dropped to the floor and braced himself. When he confronted Mr. Luciano at the scene and asked what had happened, the stunned motorman replied plainly: “I don’t know. I lost control of the damn thing. That’s all.”

Most of the fatalities (strangely, there was no official count, but the estimate ranged from 93 to more than 100) were caused by skull fractures.

Emergency workers took as long as 45 minutes to descend to the tracks. Most were rushed to Kings County Hospital, already jammed with flu patients. Some of the wounded were treated at a makeshift infirmary at nearby Ebbets Field.

The crash would figure in the closing days of the 1918 political campaign, a statewide election in New York in which, for the first time, women would be allowed to vote.

The Tuesday after the accident, Alfred E. Smith was elected governor, squeaking past the Republican incumbent, Charles S. Whitman, whose Public Service Commission was blamed for insufficiently protecting subway riders.

Mayor John F. Hylan, who as a young man had been fired as an engineer by a predecessor to the B.R.T., capitalized on the crash in his unrelenting campaign for public ownership of the subways. He personally oversaw a grand jury investigation into who should be held accountable.

Mr. Luciano, the son of Italian immigrants (whose father had changed his surname to Lewis to guard against discrimination), and five B.R.T. supervisors and executives were indicted on a charge of manslaughter.

After the accident, timed signals and automatic braking mechanisms were installed on most curves and inclines. A few decades later, speedometers and headlights would be added to trains.CreditNew York Transit Museum

After the defense demanded a change of venue, the trials were shifted to Long Island. None of the defendants was convicted.

Survivors and victims’ families filed civil suits and, once the railroad (whose slogan was “Be Careful, Safety Always”) emerged from receivership, in 1923 a successor company (the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Co.) paid out $1.6 million in claims.

The relatives of those who died were awarded amounts ranging from $500 to a top settlement of $40,000 — about $650,000 in today’s dollars, to the widow of 47-year-old Floyd G. Ten Broeck, a Brooklyn engineer who designed and built power plants and paper mills.

Today, subway trains have headlights. Also, speedometers. Wooden cars were banned. Timed signals not only indicate to motormen when they are speeding but automatically trip the brakes to stop a train that passes a red light without permission.

Since 1920, the Brighton Beach Line has been linked with Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan by the completed Flatbush Avenue subway tunnel. The Fulton Street El was demolished, and the route over Crown Heights was transformed into the shuttle between Franklin Avenue and Prospect Park.

The tunnel where the crash occurred still exists, but New York City Transit says it is used only to turn around Franklin Avenue shuttle trains with no passengers aboard.

Only a one-block vestige of Malbone Street (named for a 19th-century developer) still exists. A month after the accident, the city changed the name of the thoroughfare to Empire Boulevard.

Billy Lewis changed his name back to Luciano. He moved first from Sunset Park to Queens Village, where he became a house builder under the name of Anthony Lewis, later to Albany to be near his wife’s family, finally retiring in Tucson. Mr. Luciano lived there with his daughter and grandchildren and died in 1985 at the age of 91.

His granddaughter, who is 67, recalled the other day that he said he had been an architect in New York, and that she never knew that, for 28 minutes on one night a century ago, he had been a subway motorman.

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