Now referred to as the Malbone Street Wreck, the accident was so bad that it led to wholesale changes in transportation safety and equipment, making trains safer today.
Last Thursday, dozens of elected officials, city and state leaders, and community members gathered at Willink Plaza outside Prospect Park to commemorate the incident’s centennial. The intersection of Ocean and Flatbush avenues in Crown Heights was the exact spot of the tragedy.
They remembered the Brooklyn wreck as the “9/11 or Pearl Harbor of its day,” a moment when everyone in the city could recall where they were, what they were doing, and how they responded when they heard of the catastrophe.
“Those 93 lives today, we’re saying that you were not forgotten, and you will not be forgotten,” said Borough President Eric Adams, whose office organized the event. “Today we are saying, how do we turn pain into purpose?”
The ceremony recounted what happened 100 years ago, and all of the various factors that resulted in the crash.
Brooklyn borough historian Ron Schweiger explained that, at the time, railroads were privately owned. This transit line was run by Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT).
At 5 a.m. on November 1, 1918, engineers who worked for BRT went on strike. According to Schweiger, they worked six consecutive years earning just 50 cents an hour. Many other employees joined them in the strike.
Because the motormen were not working that day, BRT officials assigned the responsibility of running the trains to non-striking employees. Thomas Blewitt, a BRT supervisor, gave that assignment to a man named Edward Luciano.
Luciano, Schweiger noted, was a railroad dispatcher. His job was to assign engineers, conductors and other workers to various trains. He was not equipped to operate a train.
“He was given about two hours of ‘classroom instruction’ on how to run a train,” Schweiger said.
The train that the 93 passengers were on was also not set up properly. According to Schweiger, the lead car, a heavy, motorized car where the motorman sat, wasn't supposed to have two passenger cars, which are made up of mostly wood, behind it in tandem.
“That was not the case that day,” he said.
In addition to his inexperience running a train and not being familiar with the Brighton Beach line, Luciano likely had many thoughts running through his head at the time, Schweiger said.
He had recently buried his three-year-old daughter after she died from a bout with the Spanish influenza, which killed 500,000 Americans that year. Luciano was recovering from the flu himself, according to reports.
Five days prior to the incident, the clocks were turned back one hour for the first time in the country’s history. That meant the sun set earlier than usual.
Many other events were happening at the time. World War I was coming to an end, and residents were waiting to hear about the coming armistice.
New York state elections were also around the corner, and 1918 was the first year women had the right to cast their ballots.
“All of this was on his mind,” Schwieger said.
At 6:42 p.m. on November 1, Luciano’s train was entering the Malbone Street tunnel, which led to the Prospect Park station. However, the dispatcher did not know that the new tunnel was shaped in an s-curve.
Due to the darkness in the evening, and because trains had no headlights at the time, he did not see the tunnel ahead of him.
The train approached the tunnel at 30 miles per hour. The speed limit entering was only supposed to be six miles per hour.
According to Schweiger, the lead car largely avoided severe damage, but the two wooden trailer cars, which contained passengers, crashed into the concrete wall and ripped to pieces.
The momentum and weight of the motorized cars behind the two trailer cars only added to the destruction. As a result of the wreck, 93 passengers died, and more than 200 were injured.
Most were taken to Kings County Hospital, which was already packed with patients suffering from the flu. Those with minor injuries were cared for at a triage center set up inside nearby Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Fourteen of the 93 victims were interred at Green-Wood Cemetery.
Luciano and five BRT officials were brought to trial as a result of the wreck. All of them were eventually acquitted of charges.
While the s-curve tunnel is still there today, trains no longer run through it. According to Schweiger, transit officials were already constructing the linear track that is used today during the time of the incident.
“The accident, a year later, would never have happened,” he said. “There would be no s-curve being used because of the new track.”
Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit, said although the terrible accident, something that “no railway professional ever wants to happen on their watch,” took the lives of 93 innocent victims, it led to great progress in the management and safety of railways across the world.
Subways now have improved car equipment, particular the use of steel cars designed to absorb crash energy, he said.
They also have new signaling systems that protect against trains that run through red signals. New braking systems also prevent this from happening.
The MTA has a centralized control facility, and there are improved tracks with clips that hold the rail more closely.
Perhaps most importantly, MTA workers have a “relentless inspection regimen” to make sure all of the materials are up to snuff and standards are met.
“We have safety professionals who never let their guard down,” Byford said. “They keep checking to make sure that people are fit for duty, that signage is clear and well-marked, and training is up to date.”
Byford referenced two events in his own life and career that are “seared into my psyche” and affect the way he thinks about safety. The first is the fire at Kings Cross station in London in November 1987. Thirty-one people died in the blaze.
The transit leader said he was at university at the time, and recalled watching the events unfolding on television. In 1995, Byford became the station manager for Kings Cross, and saw annually a procession of families holding memorials for their loved ones lost in the incident.
“That never left me,” he said. “You have this abiding responsibility that you can never let your guard down for one minute.”
The second seminal moment came when he was promoted to safety director, a title he never took lightly. As president of New York City Transit, Byford said he will always put safety first.
“That will always be absolute priority number one,” he said.
Adams decided to host a centennial commemoration after local firefighter Francis Valerio of Ladder 113 in Prospect Lefferts-Gardens brought the anniversary to his attention.
The borough president noted just how much the wreck changed Brooklyn, in addition to the safety ramifications. After the incident, the city changed Malbone Street to Empire Boulevard so “it would not have a negative connotation” attached to the area.
He also committed to allocate capital funds to put a permanent plaque at the site to honor the 93 lives that were lost from the tragedy.
“It is our responsibility and obligation to ensure that their deaths will not be left unmarked and unacknowledged,” Adams said.