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'Absolute pandemonium': Revisiting LIRR's worst crash 70 years later

Rescuers at the scene of the crash in

His was a face in a window. A man, eyes closed, who might have been asleep if not for the trickle of blood that ran down his face, frozen in time.

"On His Way Home," the caption under that black-and-white photo read. A man who, one otherwise ordinary Thanksgiving eve, found himself dead in a horrific wreck on the Long Island Rail Road — a wreck with carnage so gruesome, one observer later told a reporter, trapped victims were "like sardines, packed in their own blood."

It happened Wednesday, Nov. 22, 1950, in Kew Gardens, Queens, just west of Jamaica. The final toll was 78 dead, 363 injured.

Seventy years later, it remains one of the 10 deadliest train crashes in U.S. history and second-worst in New York. A 1918 subway crash killed 97 in Brighton Beach.

It also proved a pivotal moment in Long Island history, a crash that would somehow both doom the troubled Long Island Rail Road — and, ultimately, save it.

The crash led state officials to wrest control of the then-bankrupt LIRR from its long-absentee owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and led to millions of dollars in safety improvements and system upgrades, as well as the eventual creation in the mid-1960s of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"I think it's important to note the things that would make the LIRR a better railroad occurred after that," New York mass transit historian Andy Sparberg, of Oceanside, said this week. "It certainly made public officials, starting with the governor [Thomas Dewey], understand the LIRR couldn't survive on its own; that it had to have some sort of public oversight, whether direct or indirect, so it couldn't deteriorate any more.

"There was too much public outcry."

For good reason.

Months before, on Feb. 17, 1950, two LIRR trains collided in Rockville Centre, killing 32 and injuring more than 100.

That same year, there was a collision between a passenger train and freight train in Huntington; a trestle fire over Jamaica Bay, caused when a passenger tossed a cigarette out a train window, burning down the bridge; even a train car that "escaped" a work yard in Queens, ran down tracks along Atlantic Avenue, derailed, crossed a street — and finally came to rest hovering over cars on the Van Wyck Expressway.

This, after the preceding decade under the Pennsylvania Railroad that saw an unmitigated rash of misfortunes and mismanagements, from a train that crashed through a bumper stop in Port Washington, careening onto to a platform and critically injuring a woman, to derailments in Sayville and Kings Park, a wreck in Syosset and a head-on collision between trains in Port Washington that killed two crew members.

Of significant factor, according to Sparberg -- an author who teaches mass transit history at CUNY's School of Labor and Urban Studies and who has 45 years in the transportation field, including a quarter-century with the LIRR, where he worked as the manager of Transportation Quality Assurance -- is that the Public Service Commission had not allowed the Pennsylvania Rail Road to increase fares on the LIRR for decades, because the railroad was considered a monopoly.

Between 1918 and 1947 the price of a monthly ticket hadn't changed, with fares like $10.56 a month between Penn and Mineola, and $13.81 a month to Babylon.

The PRR, which would later fail, had bought the LIRR, founded in 1832, in order to acquire land rights to build Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

But as ridership declined as suburbanites started traveling by bus and car during World War II, the PRR put less and less money into the LIRR — finally placing it into bankruptcy on March 2, 1949. Records showed the rail cars that passengers died in during the Kew Gardens crash had been built prewar.

Pre-World War I, that is. In 1910.

The crash occurred due to a "failure to operate" trains "in accordance with a signal indication," an investigation by the Interstate Commerce Commission found.

That commission, which included representatives of Nassau County, trustees of the LIRR, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, American Labor Party and others, found the lead train, the Hempstead-bound 6:09 p.m. out of Penn, had stopped short of Jamaica after the engineer activated his brakes and they failed to release. A flagman descended to the track to set a red lantern and light a warning fusee in the darkness but heard the engine start, assumed the issue had been resolved, so never set the warning.

The commission said the engineer of the following Babylon Express had worked 22 consecutive days and was on his last scheduled run that day when he ignored a stop signal, slamming into the rear of the stopped Hempstead train at 30 mph.

He was killed as the Express "telescoped" into the stopped train, the lead car barreling through the rear of that halted Hempstead train, obliterating all in its path. All of the dead were in those two rail cars — the lead car of the Express and the rear car of the Hempstead train. Observers thought it amazing that anyone survived.

"It was absolute pandemonium," a Newsday reporter, Bob Hollingsworth, who covered the crash, recalled on the 50th anniversary in 2000. "Debris strewn around, a maelstrom of people, ambulances, fire trucks. Confusion. Total chaos. It is, I think, the single worst thing I've ever seen."

The line between life and death involved simple twists of fate.

Attorney George R. Cohen was killed in the crash just two weeks after winning a $150,000 settlement against the railroad on behalf of a client killed in the RVC crash. Thirty-three-year-old Frank Zachmann, inducted into the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame in 2018 for his career as a renowned four-sport athlete at Baldwin High School, survived a World War II bomber crash only to be killed in Kew Gardens.

A delay caused Bernard Bahn, 31, of Lynbrook, to miss the 5:21 p.m. he always took out of Penn. He caught the 6:09 instead — and was killed.

The dead included a 21-year-old from Floral Park whose only brother had been killed in World War II, a young Levittown couple, Dolores and John Barnes, and George L. Brown, 45, of Baldwin, and his son, Stephen P. Brown, 19. The teen had met his dad at Penn Station, home from college to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.

Survivor Winifred Cannon recalled in 2000 that she usually sat in that last car on the Hempstead train, but couldn't find a seat in the packed rail car after stopping at the Horn & Hardart automat for a container of clam chowder.

Dazed and injured in the wreck, she wandered into her home in East Williston many hours later — that container of clam chowder still in hand.

Another survivor, Donald Rynd, told Newsday in 2000 how he usually sat with his friend, William Bentley, in the last car of the Hempstead train.

"I looked for Bill," he said. "But I couldn't find him. I figured that he had missed the train." So, Rynd said he took a seat in the second-to-last car, instead.

On Thanksgiving Day, Rynd and his wife, Helen, got a copy of the Newsday special edition reporting on the crash.

On the cover was the blood-streaked face of that man in the wrecked train window.

"It was Bill," Rynd said. "He was dead."

Bill Bentley, 45, of Roslyn Heights, had been killed on his way home.

In the wake of the crash, Newsday reported how a "terse" LIRR spokesman tried to "minimize" all that had happened, saying there had been no fatal accidents in the prior 25 years.

But Queens District Attorney Charles P. Sullivan called the LIRR the "Death Valley Railroad," adding: "In the minds of local citizens … a ride on this railroad is an open invitation to the morgue."

Gov. Thomas Dewey cut short his holiday vacation in Miami Beach, while New York City Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri raced home from Cuba.

Robert Moses was tabbed to help with the subsequent investigations.

Those five subsequent investigations proved good news for the Long Island Rail Road and its riders. Automatic Speed Control, a system designed to prevent high-speed collisions, was instituted systemwide in May 1951. And more than $58 million in improvements were put in place over the course of the following decade.

In 1965, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, forerunner of the MTA, took over operation of the LIRR — New York State having finally bought the railroad from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which later went bankrupt.

And though there have been subsequent accidents, including derailments, low-speed sideswipe collisions and fatal crashes with vehicles that went around lowered grade-crossing gates -- not to mention the so-called "gap" accidents highlighted in a Newsday investigation in 2011 -- since 1950 there has been just one passenger death on the LIRR as a result of any collision. That was on Aug. 13, 1962, when a train collided with a 120-ton construction crane near the tracks in Woodside.

"There's no doubt," Sparberg said, "the Kew Gardens crash saved the LIRR."

CORRECTION: Due to an archival captioning mistake, an earlier version of this story featured a photo of the LIRR accident in Rockville Centre in February 1950.

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