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The day after the city’s worst subway accident, which took place on Nov. 1, 1918, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. CreditCreditNew
York Transit Museum

100 Years After New York’s Deadliest Subway Crash
An estimated 100 people died in the Malbone Street Brooklyn Rapid Transit
disaster. Here’s how the tragedy changed public transportation in America.
By Sam Roberts

Nov. 1, 2018
At 6:14 p.m., on Friday, Nov. 1, 1918, hundreds of weary New Yorkers boarded a Brooklyn Rapid
Transit train at Park Row in Lower Manhattan for the ride home to Brooklyn.
Some would have to return to work on Saturday morning, but the rest had endured another
workweek, and all of them had survived the deadliest month of the influenza pandemic. Each day,
reports from the war in Europe seemed more promising, too, but war news still filled that morning’s
New York Times front page, except for some small ads at the bottom.
At least one of them vaguely augured what would dominate the next day’s news:
The makers of Calox tooth powder were offering customers a free guide to the city’s subway system,
which was undergoing an expansion that, among public works projects, rivaled the recently-opened
Panama Canal.
As it is today, so it was 100 years ago: Subways would continue to operate during construction work.
When a train left Park Row, the terminal across from City Hall, the following afternoon, it was still
twilight thanks to Daylight Saving Time, imposed for the duration of the war. But when the 30-yearold wooden cars rumbled across Brooklyn Bridge, over the Fulton Street El and finally descended into
the open cut adjoining Prospect Park, there was nothing but pitch blackness; the car in the front did
not have headlights to illuminate the tunnel ahead.
At 6:42 p.m., 28 minutes after it left Park Row, the train carrying 650 passengers slammed into a
concrete abutment as it rounded a sharp curve approaching the Malbone Street station in Flatbush.
Nearly 100 riders died and another 250 were injured in what remains New York City’s worst subway
accident and arguably the worst train crash in American history.
“On the basis of faulty assumptions and a perfectly understandable desire to keep the trains rolling,”
Brian Cudahy wrote in “The Malbone Street Wreck” (1999), “the B.R.T. awkwardly, tragically and
stupidly stumbled into the worst mistake in the history of American urban transportation.”
Site of Malbone Street wreck
Prospect Park
The Malbone Street disaster of exactly 100 years ago stunned New Yorkers not only because it
produced so many fatalities and injuries, but also because it was so preventable.
Like today, the state — in the form of the Public Service Commission — was largely responsible for the
subway system, which, at the time, was run by two private lines, the B.R.T. (Brooklyn Rapid Transit)
and the I.R.T. (Interborough Rapid Transit).
Even before the crash, critics complained of lax oversight of the profit-making lines, which had
already been cutting corners because elected officials insisted on maintaining the five-cent fare. The
Malbone Street wreck could have been easily avoided if the appropriate technology, which was
available at the time, had been put in place.
After the accident, timed signals and automatic braking mechanisms were installed on most curves
and inclines (all trains would not be equipped with speedometers or even headlights until decades
later, though). Which is why when a train derailed at the very same site in 1974, six passengers were
only slightly injured and the accident was blamed on a faulty switch. Had the motorman been
barreling downhill toward the deadly curve, he would have been stopped by improved safety features.
“Thankfully there have been extensive safety and technological advancements in the hundred years
since,” said Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit Authority, “in track, signal and
car design, as well as in training and operating practices — that have collectively worked together to
prevent something like this from happening again.”
The 1918 crash also prompted the formation of a city Transit Commission in 1921, which would lead a
decade later to the first municipally-owned subway (the Independent Line).
After the crash, many passengers were imprisoned in a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood
splinters, glass shards and iron beams projecting like bayonets.CreditNew York Transit Museum
The 6:14 train was being driven by a 25-year-old railroad clerk (officially, a crew dispatcher, who had
already worked a 10-hour day shift), who was born as Antonio Edward Luciano but known to his
colleagues as Billy Lewis.
He had been recruited as a scab motorman during a strike by locomotive engineers protesting the
B.R.T.’s failure to follow the War Labor Board’s order to rehire 29 employees fired for their union
He had received all of two and a half hours of classroom lessons as a motorman for a life-or-death job
that ordinarily demanded no less than 90 hours of instruction and hands-on training.
He had never driven this route before or even operated a passenger train. He said he had not been
informed that the tunnel entrance had been recently reconfigured into a difficult-to-navigate S-curve.
Moreover, Mr. Luciano’s physical and emotional state when he reported for work that morning must
have been precarious, another omen that might have been divined from two other ads on The Times’
front page that morning: one, for a wheat gruel that promised to restore the “wasted tissue” of
patients who withstood influenza, and a second for a lozenge to ward it off.
That Tuesday, Mr. Luciano had buried the second of his three daughters who had died from the
pandemic. He was apparently recovering from a bout of the flu himself.
The tunnel near Malbone Street station.CreditNew York Transit Museum
And as unprepared as Mr. Luciano was on his maiden run as a motorman, the equipment itself was
Its five cars were incorrectly coupled: two of the lighter ones were placed together, which intensified
the impact of the crash and produced more casualties.
A blown fuse had disabled the identifying colored signal lights on the front car, so the tower operator
at Franklin Avenue failed to switch the train to the Brighton Beach Line (now the D and Q) tracks.
Backing the train up to correct the mistake took an extra eight minutes — another setback for the
novice motorman, who was already behind schedule and hoping to impress his bosses with his
Mr. Luciano stopped at Dean Street and Prospect Place, but perhaps to save time, bypassed the
Consumers Park station, which meant that he may never have applied the brakes as the train
descended a 70-foot incline from Crown Heights to the tunnel in an open cut near the Willink
Entrance to Prospect Park.
Motormen were supposed to slow to 6 miles per hour to accommodate the serpentine curve, but had
he seen the speed limit sign it would have been too late to decelerate. Mr. Luciano was said to have
been going closer to 30 m.p.h. as he thundered into the tunnel.
The front cab remained intact into the turn, but the back wheels of the first car derailed. The second
and third cars smashed into the tunnel wall, triggering a suffocating eruption that imprisoned
passengers in a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood splinters, glass shards and iron beams
projecting like bayonets.
Wooden cars were banned after the accident.CreditNew York Transit Museum
One passenger, Charles Darling, a lawyer, was so terrified by the speeding train that moments before
the crash he instinctively dropped to the floor and braced himself. When he confronted Mr. Luciano
at the scene and asked what had happened, the stunned motorman replied plainly: “I don’t know. I
lost control of the damn thing. That’s all.”
Most of the fatalities (strangely, there was no official count, but the estimate ranged from 93 to more
than 100) were caused by skull fractures.
Emergency workers took as long as 45 minutes to descend to the tracks. Most were rushed to Kings
County Hospital, already jammed with flu patients. Some of the wounded were treated at a makeshift
infirmary at nearby Ebbets Field.
The crash would figure in the closing days of the 1918 political campaign, a statewide election in New
York in which, for the first time, women would be allowed to vote.
The Tuesday after the accident, Alfred E. Smith was elected governor, squeaking past the Republican
incumbent, Charles S. Whitman, whose Public Service Commission was blamed for insufficiently
protecting subway riders.
Mayor John F. Hylan, who as a young man had been fired as an engineer by a predecessor to the
B.R.T., capitalized on the crash in his unrelenting campaign for public ownership of the subways. He
personally oversaw a grand jury investigation into who should be held accountable.
After the accident, timed signals and automatic braking mechanisms were installed on most curves
and inclines. A few decades later, speedometers and headlights would be added to trains.CreditNew
York Transit Museum
Mr. Luciano, the son of Italian immigrants (whose father had changed his surname to Lewis to guard
against discrimination), and five B.R.T. supervisors and executives were indicted on a charge of
After the defense demanded a change of venue, the trials were shifted to Long Island. None of the
defendants was convicted.
Survivors and victims’ families filed civil suits and, once the railroad (whose slogan was “Be Careful,
Safety Always”) emerged from receivership, in 1923 a successor company (the Brooklyn-Manhattan
Transit Co.) paid out $1.6 million in claims.
The relatives of those who died were awarded amounts ranging from $500 to a top settlement of
$40,000 — about $650,000 in today’s dollars, to the widow of 47-year-old Floyd G. Ten Broeck, a
Brooklyn engineer who designed and built power plants and paper mills.
Today, subway trains have headlights. Also, speedometers. Wooden cars were banned. Timed signals
not only indicate to motormen when they are speeding but automatically trip the brakes to stop a
train that passes a red light without permission.
Since 1920, the Brighton Beach Line has been linked with Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan by the
completed Flatbush Avenue subway tunnel. The Fulton Street El was demolished, and the route over
Crown Heights was transformed into the shuttle between Franklin Avenue and Prospect Park.
The tunnel where the crash occurred still exists, but New York City Transit says it is used only to turn
around Franklin Avenue shuttle trains with no passengers aboard.
Only a one-block vestige of Malbone Street (named for a 19th-century developer) still exists. A month
after the accident, the city changed the name of the thoroughfare to Empire Boulevard.
Billy Lewis changed his name back to Luciano. He moved first from Sunset Park to Queens Village,
where he became a house builder under the name of Anthony Lewis, later to Albany to be near his
wife’s family, finally retiring in Tucson. Mr. Luciano lived there with his daughter and grandchildren
and died in 1985 at the age of 91.
His granddaughter, who is 67, recalled the other day that he said he had been an architect in New
York, and that she never knew that, for 28 minutes on one night a century ago, he had been a subway
Correction: November 6, 2018
An earlier version of this article misidentified the trains now running on the Brighton Beach Line.
They are the B and Q trains; not the D and Q. Also, the 6:14 train, before it crashed, stopped at Dean
Street and Prospect Place, not Prospect Park.
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 4, 2018, on Page MB6 of the New York edition with the
headline: A Train Crash and the Lessons Learned. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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