Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Wreck of "The Broker"

The Woodbridge, New Jersey Train Disaster

On this date, February 6, 1951, one of the worst train wrecks in America occurred at Woodbridge, New Jersey. It had been an ordinary Tuesday, nothing special.  The day was cold and damp, with light rain falling off and on most of the day. People remarked that it could have been worse; it could have been snow. It was February 6, 1951. The workday was ending and people were heading home. Thousands of people were making their way to the closest commuter train station.

Many of them would never make it home alive.

PRR Engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons before the Woodbridge wreck.

On a Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) track in Jersey City, New Jersey, a nine-car commuter train known as “The Broker” waited to begin its express run to Bay Head. The Broker would soon be carrying homebound commuters, mostly from New York City offices, to their homes in Red Bank, Long Branch, Asbury Park, and other communities along the New Jersey’s wealthy shoreline. The Broker was so named because most of the regular riders were bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers and other businessmen, as well as office workers. 

Engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons was already on the train, going through the necessary preparations and building up steam prior to getting underway.  Fitzsimmons was 52 years old and had been working on trains his entire adult life. He had spent 33 years on the rails without a single accident. 

The Broker’s nine passenger coaches carried an average of 900 people on a typical weekday evening. This Tuesday however, was not going to be a typical evening. There was another railroad line that ran the same basic route, the Jersey Central. However, switchmen working for the Jersey Central Railroad had called a “sick call strike” and most of their commuter trains were not running. The Broker’s usual passengers load had swollen by several hundred. The train was seriously overcrowded and the aisles were packed. The Broker pulled out of the Exchange Place station in Jersey City at 5:10 in the evening. 

Earlier in the day, the rail line the train would normally follow had been slightly altered. In Woodbridge, a small New Jersey city 30 miles south of New York, the train would be taking a short detour. Work had begun on the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, and where the train passed through Woodbridge, paralleling Fulton Street, a new temporary wooden trestle had been built to accommodate workers building the turnpike below. The new trestle shifted the track roughly fifty feet from the original line to pass over Fulton Street, on an embankment 20 feet above the street. The trestle had been put into service that afternoon, about five hours before The Broker was scheduled to cross it. It appeared to be solid and safe, as six PRR trains had already passed over it without incident. Because of the shift in the line, a “go slow” order had been posted in the PRR alert board, requiring a reduction in speed for the approach and crossing of the trestle. Under normal conditions, trains would speed through that section between 50 and 60 miles per hour. The “go slow” order reduced the speed limit to 25 miles per hour until the trestle was cleared. 

The trip had gone smoothly as Engineer Fitzsimmons pulled his train away from the Newark platform and began picking up speed as he drove through the darkening winter evening. Fitzsimmons later said that as the train neared the new trestle, he had tried to slow down but was having great difficulty. The rails were wet and slick, and the train was terribly overloaded, making it much heavier than usual. The additional weight and slick rails created a situation where the train took much longer to slow down sufficiently. The train was heading into the curve approaching the new trestle at over 50 miles per hour. At 5:43 in the evening, just 33 minutes after the train had left the station, Woodbridge experienced the worst train wreck to take place in the United States in decades. The speed and weight of the overloaded train as it rounded the curve onto the trestle had shifted the tracks, causing the train to derail. By the time the sun rose to chase away the darkness, 82 people would lie dead on a garage floor, and over 500 people would be injured, many of them seriously. 

At the moment the train passed over the trestle, it lurched sharply and started to sway. The engineer applied the brakes, but it was too late. Momentum carried the engine and the first three coaches over the chasm before falling down the end of the embankment and onto the street below.

The engine flew from the tracks in an arc and fell more than 20 feet to the pavement below. The first five coaches after the engine whipped back and forth, ending in a horrible tangle of ripped steel. Eight of the coaches had been derailed. The first two lay on their sides in the mud of the wet embankment. The third and fourth cars had telescoped into each other and were the most badly twisted and smashed. The largest number of deaths and serious injuries occurred in these cars. Still others remained upright but were horribly twisted and smashed, with one car was bent into a U-shape. Inside the coaches, passengers were tossed around like rag dolls as the cars jerked and rolled. Metal stressed and tore, mutilating and crushing the passengers inside. Newspaper accounts reported that some were “...mangled to bits under the grinding weight of the sharp, broken metal. Others survived or died in tomb-like crevasses of steel, as some of the coaches were bent by the terrible force of the crash.”

Aerial view of a section “The Broker”
At first, the air was rent with the sounds of the train as it smashed and crashed and the scream of the metal as it was torn and twisted in a thousand places. Then came a terrible quiet -- everything was still. The quiet lasted only a moment, for very soon moans and screams shattered the silence. There were chilling cries of: “Help me, help me please...”  Moans and sobs of men and women writhing in pain, if they could move at all, were heard from every part of the twisted hulk. 

The coaches in the center, specifically the fifth, sixth and seventh cars, were left fully or partially suspended over the street below. In these cars, many of the passengers who were able to move on their own, crawled toward the windows looking for a means to escape. The train’s route crossed over rivers at several points and many of these people believed they had crashed over a river. The view out the windows at the street below, with streetlights reflecting on the dark, wet asphalt, made many of the disoriented passengers believe they were in water. Many jumped headfirst from the wrecked coaches, expecting river water to soften their landing; instead they hit hard, unforgiving pavement. These people had survived the train crash, but died in an attempt to save themselves.

The force of the speeding, overloaded train ripped the rails from the temporary trestle, but the trestle remained standing.
The wreck occurred in a heavily populated area so help was very quick to arrive. The Woodbridge fire and police departments were the first official rescue agencies to appear. They found it extremely difficult to climb up the slick, muddy embankment to get to the wrecked coaches, and nearly impossible to pull the injured from the train and back down through the mud. Ladders were laid down on the embankment and the rescuers used the rungs as a sort of stairs. The Woodbridge Fire Department used their ladder truck for nearly the same purpose, except they were able to extend the ladder over the embankment and directly onto the coaches. 

Ambulances, first aid squads, and medical personnel came from at least twenty neighboring communities and cities. The Perth Amboy General Hospital, the nearest urban hospital, was alerted that there would be a large influx of injured passengers. Perth Amboy went into full disaster mode and received nearly all the people whose injuries were serious enough to need immediate and intensive medical care. First aid squads assisted those injured who were able to walk with treatment at the site. The number of injured and dead passengers was so great that a local grocery supplier had its trucks pressed into service as additional ambulances, and later as hearses. 

Within thirty minutes, an enormous crowd had arrived and surrounded the crash site. Some volunteered to help, but the majority had come out of morbid curiosity to watch the bloody drama unfold. The vast numbers of onlookers, pushing in on each other, rapidly became a calamity within itself. Ambulances experienced great difficulty getting in or out. Rescue workers had to struggle to get through the crowds. Vital rescue equipment was smashed under the mass of feet. Seeing how the behavior of the crowd was delaying the rescue operation, and possibly costing the lives of victims in dire need of immediate attention, Governor Alfred Driscoll called in the New Jersey National Guard for crowd control. The Guardsmen stood side by side, arms linked, forming a human chain, after which the rescue and recovery efforts moved forward at a rapid pace. 

The whole area was lit with acetylene torches and countless flashlights could be seen bouncing about as the rescuers searched for anyone still clinging to life. When a survivor was found, a call went out for assistance. The rescuers would work in a group to chop, cut, or pry away any obstructions that might be pinning the victim, then they would be loaded onto a stretcher and carried down the ladders to the street. 

Some victims were able to leave the wreck by themselves, whether they had received medical treatment and been released or had been uninjured. Many people living near the crash site opened their homes to these stunned and shocked individuals. They were offered food, warm blankets, and most importantly for some - the use of telephones. They needed to call home to assure their families that they were alive and to find transportation home. 

As it became apparent that the number of dead would be high, a place had to be found to store the bodies until identifications could be made. There was no place large enough that could accommodate the huge number of bodies being pulled from the wreckage. It was decided that the garage at the Woodbridge Fire Department would serve as a temporary morgue, but the idea of laying bodies on the dirty floor of a garage was repugnant. The problem was solved when a local butcher donated large rolls of waxed brown paper. As each body was brought into the garage, a sheet of the brown paper was unrolled and the blood-spattered workers gently placed the body on the paper. Then another sheet of paper was cut and laid over the body.  Witnesses described how “the feet of the dead sprawled limp, uncovered by the paper shrouds.” 

Some of the bodies brought into the morgue were so severely mutilated that it took hours to identify them, and then only by an article of clothing or a personal belonging. As word of the morgue’s location spread, terrified family and friends of anyone who was supposed to be on the train that evening lined up outside, hoping against hope that their loved one would not be lying on the floor. 

One of the last living victims to be freed, his body partially crushed, found trapped under one of the heavy steel wheels that had been ripped from one of the coaches. The rescue and recovery continued nonstop until the last body had been removed from the wreckage. It took over seven hours. The National Guardsmen stayed to watch over the site throughout the night to prevent looting and keep souvenir hunters from climbing on the wreck and getting hurt. 

The day after the crash, the FBI opened an investigation looking for evidence of sabotage. Finding none, the case was closed. 

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PPR) conducted its own investigation and laid the entire blame at the feet of Engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons. The PRR was accepting no culpability, even though they had failed to install any yellow warning lights to signal a change in speed ahead, or to signal an unexpected change in the track conditions, such as a shift of 50 feet and a new temporary trestle. 

The Interstate Commerce Commission was ordered to make an investigation into the cause of the wreck.  A public hearing was convened the day after the crash. A string of witnesses including PRR employees, passengers, expert engineers and community members who witnessed the crash. Fault was found with the operational practices of the PRR. New rules and guidelines were put in place in order to reduce the possibility of a repeat accident of this kind.

The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office found the fault lay with the PRR for the accident. It was discovered that the PRR had a company safety rule that yellow signals were to be installed at all go-slow areas, regardless of paper notices posted in the offices. It was further discovered that the PRR branch that operated along the north Jersey Shore had a practice of ignoring the rule.  The assistant prosecutor voiced outrage that the PRR was using Fitzsimmons as a scapegoat. He brought 85 counts of manslaughter against the PRR. However, the charges were later dropped when it was determined that the cost of the court proceedings would bankrupt the county. In the end, they agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

A year after the accident, the bridge had been rebuilt and all debris, wreckage, and evidence of the crash had been removed and the trains were “back on track.”  In preparation for the anniversary of the crash, a group of survivors requested that the rush hour train would stop at the site of the crash just before 6:00 p.m. for a brief ceremony to commemorate the loss of life. Administrators at the PRR denied the request. Instead, the group stood at the rear of the train and threw out a spray of 85 flowers onto the track as they neared the crash site -- one flower for each life that was lost. 

But this is not the end of the story. According to legend, there is a haunting that has occurred at the site where the train plunged off the trestle…

The story of “The Broker” was adapted from a story by Rene Kruse in the book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. The ending of the account is a ghost story about the site of the crash… and you can see the story in the book. Print editions of A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH is available from the website or you can get digital editions on Kindle and Nook from and Barnes and Noble. 

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather, Charles Aloysius "Engine Charlie" Strain was a PRR employee in Jersey City. The afternoon of the wreck, he had boarded an earlier rain bound for his home in Avon by the Sea, but for some reason that now escapes my memory he got off and later boarded the Broker. He was in one of the cars that fell down into the embankment, but aside from being banged up, was able to spend the rest of the night and the next day assisting in recovery efforts, but didn't call home until much later when my grandmother had heard the news - he wasn't home on his usual 5:00 train and the radio reports were terrible. She was worried sick with worry until he called around midnight