New York City
's worst subway
disaster occurred on November 1, 1918. 102 passengers on a Brighton Beach
-bound BRT train were killed when an inexperienced, strike-breaking motorman lost control of his train on a descending grade.
A few days earlier, the motormen and train guards of the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit, and predecessor of the BMT) had struck. In order to maintain service, other employees were given hasty instruction (a crash course, if you want to be ghoulish about it) as motormen. Edward Luciano, 23 at the time, was a dispatcher on the Culver Line. He received two hours of instruction-- instead of the usual sixty hours-- and was pressed into service as a motorman.
On November 1st, Luciano had completed a shift on the Culver, when he was asked to take a southbound Brighton train out of the old Park Row Terminal. Luciano was unfamiliar with the Brighton Line, which had one very dangerous feature-- an "S" curve at the bottom of an elevated-to-tunnel descent, at Malbone Street and Franklin Avenue, near Prospect Park.
Luciano's train that evening was composed of five elderly wooden "el" cars of 1887 vintage. The BRT was in the process of phasing out this dangerously outdated equipment, but did not do so quickly enough. The train was also extremely crowded, as it was the evening rush hour, and Luciano left Park Row 10 minutes late.
From the start, Luciano didn't seem to have control over the train. It nearly ran away from him on the descent off of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he overshot several stations in downtown Brooklyn. At Franklin Avenue, where the Brighton Line diverged from the Fulton Street El, he took the wrong lineup and proceeded several hundred feet down the Fulton el before backing his train into Franklin Avenue.
At this point, the train's fate was sealed. Luciano's obvious incompetence caused many passengers to exit the train, but their last chance was at the Park Place station (on today's Franklin Avenue Shuttle). Upon leaving Park Place, Luciano again lost control of his train. The train blew through the Consumer's Park (now Botanic Garden) station without stopping. Luciano in his panic was unable to master the complicated air braking system, and the train entered the Malbone Street S-curve, which had a 6 mph restriction, at a speed estimated to be anywhere between 30 and 70 mph.
The front half of the first car stayed on the rails, but the back half, and the next three cars did not. The second, third, and fourth cars dashed themselves to pieces against the tunnel wall, while the fifth car rolled to a stop relatively undamaged. Luciano, in the motorman's cab, was uninjured, but 102 people, mostly in the middle three cars, were killed.
The effects of this disaster were far-ranging. The BRT went into receivership almost immediately afterward. Five BRT officials and motorman Luciano were brought to trial. The BRT argued for a change of venue, the trial was held in Nassau County, and everyone was acquitted, perhaps due to the anti-union sentiment of the time. Malbone Street was re-named, to Empire Boulevard. And, of course, there were 102 dead-- there probably weren't too many people in Brooklyn who didn't know someone who perished.
The wreck site is still an active part of the subway, though it is not used by revenue moves (i.e. those carrying passengers). It is on the southbound track of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, where it crosses under the Q Train at Prospect Park. The Franklin Ave. trains run wrong-main on the northbound track at this point to terminate at Prospect Park. Ironically, the wreck was repeated in 1974 by a non-revenue move of r32 cars. However, the train was traveling at a much lower speed, and no one was killed, though one subway car was destroyed.
Note: The definitive book on this subject was written by subway historian Brian Cudahy. It is a detailed account of the wreck, its causes and aftermath, and even reveals what happened to Edward Luciano after the trial. This was noded from memory, having read a Brian Cudahy account in an earlier book, as well as Stan Fischler's histrionic and somewhat made-up account in "Uptown Downtown." Fischler states, for example, that many of the victims died not in the crash, but by electrocution from the third rail which was mistakenly TURNED BACK ON by the BRT. However, there is no evidence to support that claim.