When Death Rode the Rails 1958 (Part Two)

by John Delach

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