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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

RECKLESSNESS DISREGARD

I think the key to understanding the Malbone Station crash is to remember that when they built New York City Hall in 1812, the budget conscious city fathers used expensive white granite on the front facade but cheaper brownstone on the north side, because they could not conceive anybody would ever see the back of the place - because nobody would want to live that far north. They were wrong.
Forty years later the population of New York City was still half a million. But thirty years later, thanks innitally to the Irish potato famine, the city had over a million residents, by 1890 a million and a half, and by 1910 three and a-half million poor, tired, huddled masses were yearning for their own few square feet of New York space. By then there were lots of people living North of City Hall, and even across the East River in Brooklyn. And they were still using the same city hall. In fact it remains the oldest city hall in the nation. So even from it's foundations, New York City has always been a work in progress; i.e. -The most immediate cause of the tragedy at Malbone station was the construction of The Manhattan Bridge. This third suspension span across the East River, which opened on the last day of 1909, was meant to make travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan safer and easier. The bridge even had its own mass transit, The Bridge Three Cent Line. But the inconvenience of having to transfer from the Bridge Line to the trains of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (later the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, or BMT) drove the bridge lines out of business, and by 1915 you could take an elevated BMT train all the way from Coney Island to City Hall.But making the connection to the bridge required the BMT to complete considerable reconstruction. And while this re-construction was going the directors of the BMT built a temporary 90 degree right hand blind curve (recommended to be taken at a reduced speed of just six miles an hour) which funneled the trains leaving the elevated right-of-way on Flatbush and Ocean Avenues and Malbone Street, in Prospect Park, toward the Manhattan Bridge. Worse, this temporary junction required a rail switch-over as well, making this one of the most complicated rail connections in the entire city of New York. Still the junction worked smoothly during the lengthy reconstruction as long as the operating personal were well trained and familiar with the system. And that is what made the wild cat BMT strike of 1918 such an invitation to disaster.The strike was the result of an attempt by politicians to keep transit fares low. All the transit companies in New York City were still private entities, but their fares were regulated and for five long years were locked in at a nickel per trip. The voters approved. But eventually wartime inflation put the squeeze on the company, which responded by holding the line on salaries. And in the fall of 1918 the desperate members of The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers went out on a wildcat strike. The BMT management stepped in, following the typical American management anti-union animosity. They shifted personnel and hired strike breakers (scabs) to keep the trains running on normal scheduals. And that was how a 23 year old dispatcher named Edward Luciano found himself at 6:40 PM, on Friday November the First, starting his second ten hour shift of the day, working at a job he had not been trained for; operating a crowded, standing room only, five car train approaching the Malbone station junction, which he had never seen before, in the dark. And he was running late.He was bound to make a mistake. It was almost guaranteed. He was tired. He was confused. He was harried. He had never driven this route before. And he did make a mistake. As he came down the long grade (above) and approached the curve, he clicked over the points on the switchover and found himself headed into the Malbone station, rather than around the curve, leading to the bridge and City Hall.
Luciano slammed on the brakes, backed the train up over the switch, and closed the points. Then, frustrated and exhausted, he slammed the accelerator forward. The electric motors in the "drive cars", in each truck or pair of wheels, immediately jerked the five cars forward. Quickly they reached thirty or thirty-five miles an hour (above), heading straight down the long ramp toward the tunnel, toward the hairpin right hand turn and into the dark.The front truck under the first drive car somehow made it around the curve, even tho the right side, leaning on the curve, smashed into the tunnel wall. But the rear truck derailed. This dragged the two following cars off the rails and threw them into the tunnel walls.
Those two cars were called “trailer cars”, in that their trucks had no electric motors in them. This made “trailers” top-heavy. Standard procedure was not to run two “trailers” together because they were unstable as a pair. But because of the strike standard procedure had not been followed.An historian described how “The second car (above) slammed violently into a concrete abutment, losing its roof and one of its sides…The third car disintegrated into a tangled mass of wood and glass. Dozens of passengers died immediately, many of them decapitated or impaled by shards of wood and glass.” The New York Times provided all the grizzly details. “Scores of men, women and children were flung by the impact…against the pillars and concrete wall, where they were killed instantly or ground under the wheels after falling upon the tracks. Some…were killed when they fell upon the broken seats, splintered timbers and iron beams which projected through the shattered bottoms of the car…” The fourth and fifth cars, both being a motor cars, suffered almost no damage at all. But as the horrible echoes of the crash faded in the tunnel, things got worse.When the cars derailed they pulled up the third rail, supplying power to the motor cars. This automatically shut off the power for the entire system. But supervisors at the power station had been briefed and assumed the sudden shutdown was the result of union sabotage. They immediately threw the power back on. Dozens of injured and uninjured passengers in the damaged and undamaged cars were immediately electrocuted to death.One who survived was motorman Edward Luciano. He stumbled from the tunnel, dazed and slightly injured, and with a growing terror based on the horror he had witnessed. He panicked and went home. Behind him the New York Times recorded the scene; “Nearly every man, woman and child in the first car (sic -second car) was killed, and most of those in the second (sic - third car) were killed or badly injured…At 11 o’clock eighty-five bodies had been taken from the wreckage, and the police announced that no more bodies were in the tunnel…police estimate that at least 100 had been injured.” The final count, including those who died later of their injuries, came to 103 dead and more than 100 injured.
At one in the morning Edward Luciano was arrested at his home. Once he had told his story the district attorney had him charged with manslaughter, as in the "reckless disregard of human life" in the operation of his train. Also charge with "reckless disregard" were the
the president and vice president of the BMT. The D.A. also ordered that the chief of police was to “…station policemen at every terminal and car barn…No man will be permitted to run a train unless he has had at least three months experience.” At 2:00 a.m. the motormen, seeking to avoid any public anger over the disaster, and honestly stunned by the accident, voted to end their wildcat strike at once. Edward Luciano and both of the BMT authorities were acquitted of manslaughter charges, and no one was ever held morally or financially responsible for the 103 deaths. Within a few months the construction work was finished on the new connection line, and the blind curve was regulated to an occasional service of a shuttle line, which it still operates today, usually safely (below). The BMT line now enters Manhattan directly, avoiding the Manhattan Bridge. And out of respect for the dead and the living, Malbone Street was renamed Empire Avenue.
And all of these changes were incorporated into the “new” New York City, built, as always, out of the bits and pieces, good and bad, of her past; so much so that at times it seems as if the D.A. should be laying charges of recklessness disregard against the ghosts of that 1812 city council.
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