Memorializing a 1958 train tragedy in Bayonne

A redeveloper is contemplating a memorial at the Bayview project

A memorial to a local train tragedy may finally come to fruition at the site of the recently approved Bayview project, according to the Bayonne City Council.

Resident Steve Yurchak asked the council at its November meeting to consider memorializing what he called “one of the worst train disasters in the history of the Northeast.”

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“As the Bayview project at the site of the old A&P continues to move forward, I propose that the 1958 Newark Bay rail accident be memorialized in that area,” Yurchak said.

Memorializing the event would be “respectfully honoring the 48 lives lost in the tragedy as well as the many organizations and local citizens, both named and unnamed, who acted as heroes in their efforts to provide relief in the catastrophic situation,” he said.

Plunged into Newark Bay

On Sept. 15, 1958, at approximately 10 a.m. that morning, Central Railroad of New Jersey commuter train number 3314 plunged through the open Newark Bay Draw Bridge. The train, which originated from Bay Head, was on its way to Jersey City.

As it approached the 1.5 mile draw bridge between Elizabeth and Bayonne, which was opened to accommodate marine traffic below, the train was supposed to slow down. However, the train, which consisted of two diesel locomotives and five passenger cars, actually accelerated and was traveling over 40 miles per hour when it should have slowed to approximately 20 miles per hour.

Despite passing two orange warning signals and one red warning signal, the train barreled toward the open draw bridge. An automatic derailer threw the train off the tracks but did not stop the train, which continued at a steady pace toward the open draw bridge. The train also somehow missed the final safety measure, a concrete slab intended to prevent this exact scenario.

The two locomotives and the first two coaches plunged into Newark Bay, sinking immediately. The third coach hung suspended from the bridge before eventually toppling into the water. Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth cars were stopped on the tracks.

Many dead; locals help survivors

Of the 100 passengers onboard, 48 were killed and dozens were injured. Many were from South Jersey commuting to New York City. However, some were on their way home to Hudson County, like Helen McDonald who was returning to Jersey City from visiting family in Hazlet.

Some of the other people who died included: George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss, retired second basement of the New York Yankees; Shrewsbury Mayor John Hawkins, a New York City stockbroker who carried with him $250,000 in negotiable bonds; U.S. Army courier John McCloskey carrying top-secret devices; James Carmalt Adams brother-in-law to author Kurt Vonnegut, who later adopted his brother-in-law’s three children; Elton Clark, a director of Allied Chemical and Dye company, one of the nation’s biggest corporations; Howard Huntington, a statistician at the New York Times Financial News Department; Andrew Gill, a devoted father, husband, and IRS employee; and Vernica Jurgelowicz, a 29-year-old mother of three, and her infant son Paul.

Immediately following the accident, people in the vicinity, many from Bayonne, sought to help the victims. Among the heroes that day were: Edward McCarthy of Elco Marina, who rescued nine survivors in his boat; area employees, especially those at the Elco Marina and Englander Mattress Factory; first responders from New Jersey and New York including the U.S. Coast Guard, local fire and police departments, doctors, clergy, the Red Cross, Civil Defense teams, and the Salvation Army.

Yurchak also commended “the many unnamed and unrecognized citizens of Bayonne who unselfishly helped in whatever ways they could.”

Exact cause unclear

It is still not clear why the engineer and his crew did nothing to slow or stop the train as it hurtled toward the open draw bridge. The crew was killed in the crash. And while the engineer was determined to have suffered a heart attack at some point before, during or after the accident, an autopsy revealed he ultimately died from drowning.

Investigations by state, federal and railroad officials found that existing safety measures functioned properly, and pointed to human error. However, the investigations by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concurred the crash could have been prevented by a “dead man’s control” on the locomotive that would have stopped the train if the engineer was incapacitated.

While there was a fireman in the locomotive car who was supposed to assume control of the train if the engineer was incapacitated, which was Central Railroad of New Jersey’s reasoning for not having a “dead man’s control,” for some reason that did not happen. As a result, “dead man’s” controls were recommended and required to be installed on all locomotives in the state by the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission.

The bridge, which was built by Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1926, eventually closed in 1978, and most of it was removed throughout the late 80s. All that is left now are some remnants from part of the bridge at the site of the Bayview project, which calls for a pier to be built on the remains.

Developer considering memorial

“It seems to me, and to many others here in Bayonne, that the third worst railroad disaster in the state’s history should be palpably commemorated in some way,” Yurchak said. “A monument, a sign, a pier, a garden, something. After 63 years, it’s time. Hopefully from such a tragic event, a positive development will result from this proposal.”

Following Yurchak’s detailed recalling of the train tragedy and proposal for a memorial, City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski said things are currently in motion.

Ashe-Nadrowski said that the redeveloper at the Bayview property is looking into commemorating the tragedy in some way. The redeveloper is Bayview JC LLC, a joint venture between Gary DeBode of Gallium Real Estate and Larken Associates.

“There have been discussions with the developer down there already,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “He’s going to do some sort of memorial to it.”

Ashe-Nadrowski thanked Yurchak for bringing this before the council.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com. 

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