John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: February, 2020

When Death Rode the Rails: Sept. 15, 1958 (Part Four)

I published a stand-alone version of Part Four entitled: “No. 932: Sent from the gods” in January of 2014.

When the third coach, Car 932, temporarily came to rest on that 80-degree angle, it became the iconic newspaper photograph of record carried on the front pages of Tuesday’s Metropolitan newspapers. All the morning papers from the Daily News and Daily Mirror the Star Ledger and The Asbury Press carried the image of this half-submerged coach conspicuously identified as 932. It became a message from the gods.

And so, workingmen and women who played the numbers flocked to this heavenly gift and played 932 in droves. Back then, a big bet was one dollar, but you could bet as little as a quarter with a local runner, a part-time collector who worked for a bookie. When you bet a three-number combination, the payoff was 600 to 1.

Harry Barnhardt worked as a hostler for the Erie Railroad in their Hoboken Yard shuttling locomotives within a terminal. Harry would transfer steamers and diesels from shops and lay-up tracks, hook them up to coaches and move the consist into the station for the evening rush hour trains.

Harry was my friend, Mike Scott’s, grandfather. Aside from his Erie job, he was also a runner for a bookmaker in Jersey City. He collected daily bets from fellow Erie workers in the afternoon and, each morning, made the rounds of bars along Hudson Boulevard and Summit Avenue in north Jersey City. Harry’s railroad workday began at 3 pm making his mornings clear to troll these local gin mills, pick up the day’s bets and pay off yesterday’s winners. Mike was eight in 1958 and recalls, “On days off from school and during the summer, my brothers, Jimmy and Kevin my sister, Kathy and I took turns visiting Harry and Rose. Harry would take us out with him on his morning rounds. We’d get a free Coke and Harry would sip a beer while conducting business. Then, it was on to the next gin mill.”

The Wednesday night after the wreck, Harry dropped Grandma Rose off at the Scott’s house for her traditional spaghetti night. But this night was different! Instead of distributing her normal allowance of twenty-five cents to Mike and his older brother, Jimmy, grandma handed them each a Five Dollar bill. “Unheard of!” Mike reported. “Not only that, she took all of us out to the Chinese Joint, a rare thing indeed.”

“Then, even crazier, the next weekend, on Harry’s day off, he took everybody to Mario’s, a bar in Clifton that served up those 1950s’ vintage pizzas with enormous air pockets. Were they any good? Who knew – They were the only and best pizza we ever had. But what made this special was, Harry blew for dinner, something he never did.”

Mike continued, “Years later, when I went into the insurance business, Harry clued me into what happened that day. He said, ‘People play the same number all the time, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. But they are also superstitious and when a crash happens and they find a number, it’s played like wildfire. That morning, 932 came in everywhere I went. It was crazy. When I took my sheets in, I said to the guys, ‘This is nuts!’

“Did you play it Harry?’ they asked me? ‘Hell, yes, I replied. But how can the bookies cover if it hits?”

Mike explained: “When the bookmakers discover that a number is being heavily played, they find other bookmakers who don’t have this action. The 1958 CNJ wreck was an East Coast event so the bookies figuratively headed west. Their search began in Pittsburgh, then to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc. until they managed to layoff enough to survive. In return, they took the western books hot numbers then or later.

“Harry not only hit the number; he was a hero in all those gin mills. Grandma took his $600 payout, but Harry kept all the tips from his bettors and the action she didn’t know about.

“When Harry told me this story, he stopped, thought about it and said, ‘I went down to Jersey City early the next morning scared that there wouldn’t be a payout. Already, the word was bookies had reneged. As it turned out, those were mostly locals, kids or jerks, without a clue trying to get a piece of the action. The people I worked for were solid and paid off in full. You know, it hit me when I walked out to make my rounds that day, ‘My God, this is the most amount of money I will ever have on me in my entire life.”

When Death Rode the Rails 1958 (Part Three)

Paul Land, the stockbroker from Rumson, regained his senses fifty feet under water in the second car: “…under the roof, there was an air pocket several inches high. I don’t know how I did it, but I floated up there. I gulped all the air I could, but at that point I thought I was a goner.

‘You see, I don’t swim. Only recently did I learn to float. But I don’t swim or dive. In the top of the car, the swishing of water was fantastic. It banged me around this way, then that way. I would say there were about thirty-five bodies in the car then and only a few others got out with me.

“Some way, maybe I dove, or maybe I pulled myself down, I don’t know, but I got myself to the bottom of the car and against this window. I don’t know if it was open or I broke it, but suddenly an enormous air bubble formed. It burst out the window with me in it and shot me to the surface.

“I thought I was going to drown again, that I would sink. But then a helicopter came along with a rope dangling down. I wrapped it around and around my arms, tight, then I passed out. Later I found that there were five of us in the helicopter. The others were also severely injured. One of them, I think, died.”

John Hawkins body was recovered the next day as was his briefcase containing the $250,000 in securities. So was James Adams body. The family tried to keep the news from his dying wife, Alice, but a nurse let it slip. Alice died the next day. Her brother, Kurt, the not yet famous author and his wife raised the couple’s oldest three boys while the baby went to other relatives.

Rafael Leon, a Venezuelan financier, was trapped in the tilted third coach with his wife. “I tried to get hold of my wife. I had one hand on something above me in the water – a seat or something. I had the other hand on my wife. But there was a man on top of her, and he was already drowned. I tried to get hold of her, but I could not get her up.

“I was drowning there under the water. I was drowning and praying. My wife was beneath me in the water. I swam down in the water and tried to find her, but the water was too deep, and she had slipped down. I went back up to the surface of the water inside the coach. A window was open, but I stayed there some time inside the coach praying. There is no use trying to find my wife. She is already lost. If I go down again to try to get her, it will just mean that I will die too.”

Mr. Leon climbed up to higher window in the coach and escaped in a small boat.

Boats had quickly converged on the wreck. One of the first to arrive was Edward McCarthy who owned the Elco Marina in Bayonne just north of the drawbridge. He heard the distress signals from the Sand Captain as it neared the bridge just as the train catapulted into the bay. He immediately set off in a 16-foot launch and was credited with rescuing 11 people in the first 15 minutes.

“There were people floating all over the place. They were screaming for help. It was so frustrating. You are all alone and there is only so much I could do to help.”

The Sand Captain launched its lifeboat which maneuvered over to the dangling passenger car. Passengers climbed out of the windows above the bay and into the boat. Soon police and fire boats from New Jersey and Staten Island arrived as did Coast Guard cutters, land units and helicopters. Unlike other wrecks, response on a massive scale was un-necessary. The living was quickly rescued turning the operation into one of recovery. Divers arrived to enter the murky, polluted waters of Newark Bay to recover the wrecked engines and coaches and any bodies they stumbled across in the darkness. Magnus “Peanuts” Sonnergern, a 36-year-old diminutive master diver from Staten Island led the efforts to raise the units. He explained, “I have hands and they are my eyes.” Making over a dozen dives in three days, Peanuts recovered 21 bodies and helped raise all five units despite lack of visibility and tricky tides.

Snuffy Stirnweiss wife and six children received $9,000 in cash death benefit from the Major League Players’ benefit Plan and a monthly amount of $157.50 for the rest of her life.

All the passengers who died occupied the second and third cars that fell into the bay. This wasn’t happenstance. These cars were closest to the front of the train which passengers had to pass to board the connecting ferry to Manhattan.

The two diesels were recovered, repaired and returned to service. Full service across Newark Bay ended in 1967 when all Shore Line trains were re-routed to Hoboken. Shuttle service ended in 1980 and the bridge was soon dismantled

That should have been the end but Part Four will tell a curious story related to the wreck.                                         

When Death Rode the Rails 1958 (Part Two)

The Central of New Jersey’s Newark Bay Bridge was a masterpiece of engineering when it opened in 1926. The four-track railroad bridge spanned Newark Bay at a height of 35 feet above the water. Twin vertical lift draw bridges spanned the two shipping channels allowing free passage for ships between Port Newark and the sea.

The bridge’s safety devices were simple, but comprehensive. Not one of the four lift sections could be raised until the signals located along the tracks leading to these spans went to stop. Simultaneously, automatic derailing devices located 300 feet from the spans were set in the derailing position. In theory, they were designed to force a train to stop by knocking it off the tracks. 

At 8:55 am, Patrick Corcoran, the drawbridge captain set the signals and the derailleur before proceeding to raise the span for the passage of the sand boat, Sand Captain, outbound running empty headed for Coney Island. Because this was a small harbor craft, Corcoran raised the span to a height of 108 feet; 27 feet less than the maximum raised position of 135 feet. He reasoned that by limiting the height of the opening, he would be able to lower the span more quickly to resume railroad operations. But this ordinary decision had consequences. Had he opened the bridge to its maximum height of 135 feet, the concrete counterweights would have descended almost to track level blocking the opening. Instead, the counterweight hung 27 feet above the tracks.

Train No. 3314 left Elizabethport at 8:57 and passed through the first of three stop signals at the entrance to the bridge traveling at a speed of 35 MPH.

Corcoran told reporters and investigators that he looked out his window as soon as the spans were lifted to ascertain the location of 3314 so he could log the time it was forced to wait in his delay report. Instead of being stopped at Signal R26, the train had already passed this signal. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. I never saw anything like it before. All the safety devices were operating. There was nothing I could do.”

The tapes in the diesels recorded that the train reached a speed of 42 MPH before it reached the automatic derailleur. An autopsy performed on engineer Wilburn after his body was recovered revealed that he may have had a heart attack at this critical time. But what has never been explained is what was the fireman doing? Why didn’t he use his set of controls to stop the train? Instead, no effort was made to brake the train until almost at the point of derailment when another crew member riding toward the rear of the train set off the emergency brakes in the rear two cars. The ICC found that when the brakes on these two cars were inspected after the crash, “The brakes of both cars were found fully applied.”

Owing to that day being the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, only about 100 to 130 passengers were on board when the train crossed the bridge. Nobody occupied the closed front combo car, 30 to 60 occupied the second car (closest to the connecting ferry), 20 in the third car and 20 more divided between the fourth and fifth cars. Had the concrete counterweights been at track level, the two diesels would have taken the brunt of the crash and it is probable that the combo car would have telescoped the rear diesel with no loss of life. The four trailing coaches would have crashed about accordion style suffering crushed vestibules and probably overturning. It would be foolish to estimate the casualties from such a wreck or what the death toll would have been, but it would have been far less than the 48 souls who died in the actual wreck

Without the concrete barrier the engines and the first two cars went over the edge and sank into the bay. The third car, Number 932, came to rest half-submerged at an 80-degree angle with its top end leaning against the mouth of the open span with 75% under water resting on a ledge. Here it remained for two hours before plunging into the bay, time enough for all survivors in this coach to escape and photographers to record its sickening appearance before it slipped to the bottom of the channel.

To be continued

When Death Rode the Rails: Sept. 15, 1958

Part One

Paul V. Land, a forty-eight-year old stockbroker, chose the second passenger coach of Train No. 3314 on Monday morning, September 15, 1958. He boarded the Central of New Jersey Railroad train at the Red Bank Station for the 57-minute run to Jersey City. Mr. Land almost didn’t make the train. As he drove from his home in Rumson, he considered playing hooky and spend this Indian summer day back at home. But work came first so, with the New York Times in hand, he boarded the late rush hour train commonly called The Broker.

The train originated in Bay Head and was running north on the railroad commonly called the Jersey Shore Line. After arriving the terminal in Jersey City, Mr. Land planned to catch one of the CNJ’s Hudson River ferries to reach his office in Lower Manhattan.

The train proceeded without incident and on time through Elizabeth Junction where it switched on to the CNJ’s mainline tracks that headed east leading to a stop at Elizabethport before crossing Newark Bay over the two-mile long bridge that ran between that station and Bayonne. All seemed well. Lloyd Wilburn (63) the engineer waved to Joe Holiday, the tower man, from his diesel cab as it passed through the junction.

Land sensed something was wrong as the train crossed the trestle. Fifteen years of commuting alerted his senses, “The train was going very fast. I heard the brakes screech, and I looked out the window and saw this ship about to pass through the drawbridge. Then the train began to bump. It bumped and bumped – this must have gone on for 1,000 feet, I don’t know, I looked quickly and noticed all the windows were closed.”

“Through the car ahead I saw the first locomotive disappear from the trestle, then the second, then the car in front of ours, and then we went. There was a jar and a rush of water and the car banged sharply back and forth.”

Thus began Mr. Land’s ordeal and those of his fellow passengers as the two engines pulling Train 3314 and three of its five coaches plunged into the oily waters of Newark Bay.

Lloyd Wilburn, the engineer and his 42-year old fireman, Peter Andrews, drove the train sitting on either side of the cab of the road switcher, Engine No. 1532 with an identical engine behind them. These two diesel-electric locomotives, built by General Motors Electro-Motive Division, new in 1952, pulled the late rush hour train of four coaches and one passenger-baggage combo car. This combo car rode directly behind the engines and was running light having been closed off by the crew.

The engines were not equipped with a “dead man’s control,” a device that automatically stops a train if the operator doesn’t maintain hand pressure on the throttle. The Jersey Central believed such devices were unnecessary on locomotives operated by two crew members since the fireman had identical controls that provided enough redundancy.

As the train made its way through the towns along the Jersey Shore it picked up a mix of late commuters, people on their way for a day in the city and late season Jersey shore dwellers who stayed over Sunday night and were now making their way back to New York.

Paul Land was such a passenger as was John Hawkins, the mayor of Shrewsbury and a partner at Amott, Baker & Co., a Wall Street brokerage. Normally, Mr. Hawkins caught an earlier train, but, that morning, he had to stop at the Monmouth County National Bank to retrieve $250,000 worth of negotiable securities he deposited there on Friday afternoon as he didn’t have enough time to return them to the office before the close of business..

James Adams boarded preoccupied with his wife’s grave illness. The father of four, his wife, Alice, lay dying from cancer in Monmouth Memorial Hospital. He too normally rode an earlier train but since having his wife admitted the previous week, he became responsible for getting his oldest three boys ready for school before he could begin his daily Wall Street journey. (Alice’s brother was the author, Kurt Vonnegut.)

George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss also boarded the train in Red Bank. Mr. Stirnweiss, a retired major league infielder. had spent most of his career with the New York Yankees joining the team in 1943. He won the American League batting title in 1945 with an average of .309 and led the league in stolen bases with forty-four in 1944. He retired in 1952 and this father of six was on his way to a business lunch in the city.

To be continued.