John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: November, 2013

When Death Rode the Rails, November 22, 1950

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is easily the busiest travel day of the year and all manner of public transportation must cope with the tremendous volume of passengers all trying to return home for this national holiday. The Long Island Railroad is no exception as travelers laden with gifts and luggage compete for room with the rush hour commuters heading home for their holiday. Even adding additional trains during the evening rush cannot compensate for the multitudes who fill the coaches to over-capacity, jamming the aisles making ticket collection; impossible. The evening of November 22, 1950 was such as passengers scrambled to make their trains and head home.

Two packed trains, No. 780, the 6:09 to Hempstead and No. 174, the 6:13 to Babylon both left Penn Station on time, sped under the East River and emerged at Sunnyside, Queens where the operators controlling Harold Interlocking Tower aligned the switches so that both train sets could enter Track 2, the eastbound express track on the main line for the 7 ½ mile run to Jamaica.

Nearing Richmond Hill, 1.23 miles from Jamaica, Motorman William Murphy, the driver of the Hempstead train first slowed down to comply with a signal then brought his train to a halt. Once the train in front of him moved, the signal changed to “proceed with caution”.  Murphy tried to release his brakes to no avail. He passed word back to the brakeman riding in the last car to exit the rear of the train and proceed down the track a sufficient distance to protect it from any following train while Murphy and the train’s conductor checked the air brake valves on each car. The brakeman’s duties included taking on the role of a flagman to protect the train with a lantern, flares and torpedoes (devices which would be set off on the tracks by an approaching train), Bertram Biggam, No. 780’s brakeman and the youngest of the crew didn’t have the chance to cover the needed distance of at least one half-mile behind the stalled tlrain to be effective.

For at that moment, Babylon bound Train No. 174 was closing fast. Motorman Benjamin Pokorny had already followed procedures and had stopped at a signal that indicated that No. 780 was in the block ahead of him. Once stopped, that signal automatically gave him permission to proceed to the next signal at a restricted 15-miles per hour. As the train passed the KewGardens station, Pokorny had an excellent view of a signal in the distance. That signal changed from Restricting to Approach, but that clearance was for the next block and was meant for the Hempstead train, not Pokorny’s train. Pokorny mistakenly assumed that 780 had cleared the block and accelerated the speed of his train to 35-miles per hour.

Brakeman Biggam told investigators that as he was about to alight from the rear car, he saw the headlight of another train approaching from a distance of about 1,000 feet, but did not take further action. “I saw the big headlight of another train. It seemed to be coming awfully fast along the straightaway. I said to myself, ‘My God, is that train on our track?’ Then I thought: ‘No that can’t be…’ and then I heard his emergency brakes go on.”

It was 6:29 pm.

Motorman Pokorny was probably the first to die as the lead car he was piloting, No. 1523, plowed into the last car, No. 1516, of the Hempstead train. Car No. 1523 telescoped into 1516 deflecting the body of that coach above its own roof separating the body from its underframe, effectively splitting 1516 into two pieces, top to bottom. As 1523 continued to slice through the stopped car, it became a killing machine cutting through the bottom of 1516 destroying its interior and slaughtering almost many of the passengers riding there.

The carnage was horrendous. Happy Howard, a Long Island Press reporter described the scene that followed:

Father Ned’s lips moved gently as he repeated the prayer of extreme unction. “Help me father,” the woman said, “Help me.” Her eyes filled with tears repeated the plea…but she remained calm. Only when the excruciating pain ripped through her body did her face distort into a grimace. “Help me,” she said again and her voice trailed off into a whisper. Her eyes closed, and she lay quiet in the sleep of the dead. 

Father Ned, assistant pastor of Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, Maspeth, finished his prayer and moved on, crawling on his knees through the shattered Long Island Railroad coach. 

A few feet away he came to a man, his body grotesquely twisted and immobile under tons of raw steel. His moans were pierced with sharp cries of pain. He screamed. He cried like a small child…and screamed again. 

The priest had crawled through the jagged glass of a broken window to get to wreck victims. Father Ned was one of a dozen priests who responded to an emergency call by Fire Chief Peter Lofus of Flushing to give spiritual comfort to those for whom there was no other aid.

Seventy-eight souls died that night. Miraculously, brakeman Biggam did not. Having re-boarded the doomed last car of Train 780 he remembered, “That big blinding headlight came flying at us…and that’s all I remember. I woke up on the floor buried in people and seats and wreckage.”

An off-duty policeman, Patrick Fitzgibbons, who lived near the tracks on Cuthbert Place in KewGardens, made the first report on his home telephone as soon as he heard the horrific sound of crashing steel. In the short time that it took emergency workers to respond, they arrived to find a forest of ladders already erected by the neighborhood residents who had climbed the embankment and were doing all in their power to aid the victims. Fortunately, power to the third rails had been turned off so there were no instances of good Samaritans being electrocuted.

Harold Rosenberg, 34, who was riding in the last car of the Hempstead train recalled the moments after the crash: “People were lying all about, screaming in pain. Others beat frantically at doors and windows, which were jammed shut. Seconds later, neighbors from across the way arrived at the scene with ladders and jimmied open the doors and started to take out the injured.”

Response was rapid and comprehensive. When ambulances ran short, station wagons and taxi cabs were requisitioned to take the injured to area hospitals while thousands of people responded to calls for blood donations. EMS and railroad workers erected flood lights as welders cut twisted steel to remove mangled bodies. The two telescoped smoking cars remained locked together for almost five hours until the remaining cars of the two trains could be removed and two of the railroad’s wrecking cranes could be positioned at either end of the wreck. Finally the last car of the Hempstead train was lifted away revealing the remaining bodies wedged into the debris that was Car No. 1516.

The Interstate Commerce Commission officially determined the cause of the train wreck to be the dead motorman’s disregard of a Go Slow signal, but outrage descended on the state and especially the LIRR’s parent, the Pennsylvania Railroad. Enough was enough in the post-war history of mismanagement and accidents on the Pennsylvania’s stepchild. The railroad agreed to undertake a comprehensive improvement program that included installing Automatic Speed Control devices (ASC) on all mainline tracks designed to prevent this type of accident from occurring again.

I was six-years old when the LIRR’s Thanksgiving Eve wreck happened, but I remember the photographs of the carnage as if it just happened this Thanksgiving. I also carry with me my mother’s admonition about what not to do when riding the Long Island Railroad. Her order was: “Never ride in the front car or the back car.” To this day, I do not!

The Red Sox Century

None other than The New York Times has decreed that the Boston Red Sox have inherited the baseball planet now and for the next eighty-seven years. On November 3, 2013, Sports Sunday proclaimed this irrefutable truth in a first page story under the headline: In Baseball’s Time Machine, 21st Century Belongs to the Red Sox.

Their reporter, David Walderstein, waxed eloquently on this theme. He began with a discussion of all of those dark, dreary years from 1919 onward as he traced the futility of hope that once burdened the Beantown faithful until 2004 that magical year when… “Boston finally defeated the Yankees head-to-head, then won its first World Series in 86 years. That title seemed to lift the Red Sox from the burden and pressure of decades of futility…Then it started to flow. Another arrived in 2007, and now 2013.”

Mr. Walderstein further noted this new-found success “…is hard for many Yankee supporters to accept, and perhaps many regard as a usurpation of their birthright.” Why he even invoked the late Boss writing, “Certainly, George Steinbrenner would not have stood for it…”

Mr. Walderstein doesn’t make light of the Yankees’ past success; their 26 championships from 1923 to 2000, but like the Delta Airline commercial that notes the aerial achievements of Orville Wright, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong, the narrator then concludes with the statement: …and with that, we sweep them into the dust bin of history ( or something like that.)

Oh dear, oh dear, all of that history and accomplishment; gone, kaput, adios. But Walderstein is not content to base his case just on the present. No, no, he focuses on the future, the Yankees’ aging team, A-Rod, Jeter, C.C. and notes “…there is some discontent that the Yankees have not been able to draft and develop a reliable flow of young players who can contribute…”

In contrast he reports, “John Henry, the Red Sox owner, seemed to have his organization’s ability to keep good young players coming…”

What a contrast, the Yankees suck while the Sox seem to walk on water.

Case closed! Ole Davey Walderstein has condemned the Yankees to a dismal fate casting them into the same Baseball Circle of Hell where the Sox were forced to dwell for most of the 20th Century.

He does note in this piece in three places that these same Red Sox also  began the 20th Century as if it were their century. That they won the World Series five times in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918. But each time he raises this statistic, he makes light of it and moves on.

Still, I can’t help but think: What if Mr. Walderstein wrote about baseball for the Times one hundred years ago? By the autumn of 1918 he would have been completely over-the-top following the Red Sox fifth championship in that young century deeming the remainder of the 20th Century to belong to these Sox.

Of course, he would have predicted this before the owner sold that chap named Ruth to the Yankees. Gee, I wonder what possibly could happen to the Red Sox this time.

Every so often for no apparent reason the usual gang of editors at the Grey Lady must skedaddle out-of-town or just get blottoed leaving the content of their newspaper to the control of  inmates from some upscale prison for the creative yet mentally insane. Such was the case on Thursday, November 7, 2013.

The first instance of this silliness was not difficult to locate. There, on the lower fold of the first page, was this color photograph of a factory in Valencia, Venezuela showing a stack of mannequins shaped like voluptuous women that the copy described as, “…with a bulging bosom and cantilevered buttocks, a wasp waist and long legs, a fiberglass fantasy…”

Good God Almighty, bulging bosom and cantilevered buttocks! Has Fifty Shades of Grey been reproduced on the front page of the Paper of Record? Not quite, but somehow the NY Times did feel the need to place this story on Page One, a story about the latest trend in Venezuelan mannequins designed to reflect the national trend of implant surgery. Page One material indeed!

But there is more silliness. On Page A12, we find two opportunities to worry about coming disasters. First off, any day now, GOCE, (pronounced Go-chay), a one-ton satellite used to map Earth’s gravitational field will come tumbling down from the heavens. Notes the NY Times: “Where and when it will crash no one knows. It could be almost anywhere on the globe.”

And when it comes crashing down, 25 to 45 pieces of GOCE will survive to strike something or someone. No big deal? Ah, but one may weigh as much as 200 pounds. Rune Floberghagen, (can’t make this stuff up), the mission manager for the European Space Agency (ESA) who own GOCE, thought it would come down last Sunday or Monday and the closest fix the ESA would come to pinpointing where it would impact would be on the day before it hits and then to some point during its last three orbits! (Early on Monday, November 11, GOCE met a watery end in the South Atlantic between Antarctica and South America. Whew, that was a close one if you live on the Falkands)

But, even though it turned out that we ducked that bullet, opposite the GOCE piece is one about future strikes by large asteroids, 450-feet-wide  . Once thought to be a one in 100 to 200 years occurrence, new data suggests they will happen, “…as often as every decade or two.”

To counter this or at least let us have some forewarning of a strike by a 450-foot-wide asteroid, Dr. Edward T. Lu, a former astronaut and now director of the B612 Foundation proposes placing a space telescope called Sentinel above us to watch for these monsters. Dr Lu notes, “A 450-foot-wide asteroid would be the equivalent to 150 million tons of TNT. You’re not going to wipe out humanity, but if you get unlucky, you could kill 50 million people or you could collapse the world’s economy for a century or two centuries.”

Good grief, no matter how you slice it, this is heavy stuff to digest. One thing surely for certain, the thought of one of these monsters falling from the heavens makes the shenanigans involving the Miami Dolphins lineman, Ritchie Incognito pale in comparison.

The Day They Lowered the Flags

Confused and dazed, I left my mother’s “railroad flat” at 1821 Himrod St. in Ridgewood and walked the eight blocks to the Myrtle Avenue el’s Seneca Avenue elevated station on this seasonably cool autumn afternoon, November 22, 1963. My mother was at work in the City, I had a class that evening and what else was I going to do? I waited for the old wooden el train to arrive staring into space not thinking; numb, robbed of emotion. I boarded the sparsely filled silent car, sat down and resumed my blank stare out the window over the rooftops of Bushwick as the train took me south toward my destination, Downtown Brooklyn. As the train rumbled above Myrtle Avenue, I began to focus on the schools and other city buildings that stood taller than the surrounding residential buildings. Some of these municipal buildings had masts that were flying the Stars and Stripes, a practice rather uncommon at that time. The flags attracted my attention but, what really caught my eyes was the realization that all of these flags were at half-mast. That is when it finally hit me: the President was dead!

The day had begun ordinarily enough. I had a curious schedule at St. Francis College that semester with classes split between mornings and evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Fridays, I had two classes in the morning from nine to 11 and one at night, a two-hour advanced history course from four to six. Professor James (Doc) Flynn, the department head, taught that class. He was a rough, tough professor who loved history majors and I learned more about politics, government and the Constitution from that man than any other person ever. To this day I recall things he imparted to me whenever an unusual political event transpires. He almost made it worth while to lose the early part of Friday night’s fun.

That Friday, after morning classes ended, I left the building on Remsen Street, cut between the courthouses and boarded the el at Jay Street to head home for lunch. We didn’t have a campus and I had become bored hanging around the cafeteria killing the afternoon watching others leave for the weekend. And to be truthful, I also had become addicted to the CBS soap opera, As the World Turns. It was during the episode broadcast that Friday afternoon that a jacketless Walter Cronkite, tie askew, first broke the news that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot while visiting Dallas. Cronkite returned to the air a bit later, now wearing a jacket and tie. He removed his glasses wiped a tear from his cheek before he told America, “The President is dead.”

Arriving on the train back at  Jay Street, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs to scan the afternoon newspapers lined up on the corner newsstand to see if any had reported the awful news. I felt this overpowering need to see the truth with my own eyes, but the Journal-American, Post and World-Telegram and Sun on display were all early editions. Still I stopped and fingered one or two in hope that the absence of news could reverse what I knew to be true. Suddenly, a bundle thrown from a passing truck dropped to the sidewalk at my side. Instantly, someone cut the strap and greedy fingers from a crowd I had not noticed began devouring the latest edition of the Telegram. I was one of them mesmerized by the headline that filled the top half of the front page in four-inch high letters:



I went into a form of a mental breakdown, took my copy and made my way to the building on Remsen Street. I know I went to class.

While many of the classes that afternoon and evening had been cancelled, Doc Flynn didn’t abide by such a notion. His class would go on as scheduled.

I do remember Doc Flynn making a brief remark about our national tragedy before commencing his lecture only to quickly concede that the zoned out group of boys facing him were absorbing nothing. He stopped, dismissed the class and wordlessly, we filed out.

Did I stop for a drink at Jim and Jeans’ our local watering hole on Livingston Street or O’Keefe’s on Court Street, or did I just go home? I have no recollection of the night so I presume I must have just gone home.

On Saturday morning, I walked to our shopping area on Myrtle Avenue in a light rain, bought an American Flag that I brought home to display on a rope between our living room windows as best I could to publicly mourn our collective loss.