When Death Rode the Rails 1958 (Part Three)

by John Delach

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.