In 2013, a Metro-North Railroad commuter train derailed north of Manhattan. Four people were killed.
When he heard about the accident, my father said the train must have been going too fast. He said the same thing had happened to him sixty years earlier.
I looked at him blankly. He then told me a story I had never heard.
On Feb. 6th, 1951 my father was one of 1,100 people on the 5:10 p.m. train from Jersey City to Bayhead. It was called the “Broker” because many of the passengers worked on Wall Street.
It was raining and the Broker was crowded because an earlier train had been canceled.
Engineer Joseph Fitzimmons had been warned to slow down to 25 mph at Woodbridge, where a temporary wooden trestle had been built to bypass construction on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Fitzsimmons later blamed the wet rails and overloaded carriages for making it hard to decelerate. The train went into the curve at close to 50 miles an hour.
The train ran off the tracks and folded in upon itself in a mangled pile of steel. The first two cars tumbled down the embankment, the third and forth were crushed. Eighty five people were killed, making it the third worst train accident in U.S. history.
Dad told the story like this:
“I normally rode in the second car — it was the only non-smoking car on the train. There were no seats that night so I found a seat in the rear of the first car. It was a steam locomotive. As we left Newark, I closed my eyes. But when we approached Woodbridge I knew the train was going too fast to negotiate that slight turn. The locomotive and the coal car and the first car went off the track. We were bumping along the railroad ties for what seemed like a long time.”
“We came to a screeching halt and I heard running water. I thought we were over the Raritan River. Actually, the coal car had turned over and the water used in the boiler was pouring out. The window next to me was smashed so I jumped out. I could see the first car was at a severe angle, tilted to the right. I was on the right side of the train. It wasn’t a far jump. I was on an embankment. I was probably one of the first out of the train. The coal car had gone off at right angles and was supporting it from failing over.”
“The second car was also off the track and leaning badly. The two worst cars were the third and the fourth. They sheared off the right side of the cars. So those people were exposed greatly. And that’s where most of the deaths occurred.”
“I ran up to the coal car and I helped the conductor and the fireman who shoveled coal get out. He was pretty well cut up. Then I went back to the first car and helped people out. Not too long after that the ambulances started coming down the street so I started to walk into the town of Woodbridge. I found the police department and called my parents. By that time they had heard on the radio and they knew that that was my normal train.”
“One reporter interviewed me and my boss who was on the West Coast said he read an article with my name in it. The only thing I lost when I jumped out of the train was my raincoat. When the insurance people came I got a nominal amount for my overcoat.”
My dad was 85 years old when he told me that story. It hadn’t occured to him to mention it before.
So many things conspired to cause the accident.
Construction had just begun on the New Jersey Turnpike. It rained. A strike by workers on another rail line added more than two hundred passengers to the load.
All that contributed to the accident, but it also spared my father by ensuring he wasn’t in the second car.
I think about that in the context of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
There is so much we don’t know. So much we cannot control.
What we can do is tell the stories so we don’t forget.