When Death Rode the Rails, November 22, 1950

by John Delach

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!