The worst subway disaster in New York City history occurred on November 1, 1918 in Brooklyn. A speeding Brighton Beach-bound BRT (the defunct Brooklyn Rapid Transit) train failed to negotiate a treacherous “S” curve along an elevated-to-tunnel stretch of track at Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard) and Franklin Avenue. While the lead car of the five-car train managed to (partly) stay on the track, the other four cars derailed and slammed into the wall of the tunnel’s entrance, killing 102 passengers.

Edward Luciano, 23 years old, the motorman of the ill-fated train, was not only an inexperienced motorman he was also totally unfamiliar with the Brighton Line. In fact, Luciano wasn’t a motorman at all but a train dispatcher. He along with a host of other BRT workers were pressed into service at the last-minute in the midst of a strike against the company by motormen and flag men; in union terminology, he was a scab. While regular motormen received a minimum of 60 hours of training, Luciano received a 2 hour “crash course” (as Freddo at Everything2 puts it). To make matters even worse, immediately after completing a shift on another line, Luciano was placed behind the complicated controls of an overcrowded, 1887 wooden relic of a train for his ride towards disaster.

The evening rush hour was already in progress and Luciano was running ten minutes late when he departed Park Row station in Manhattan.  From the get-go, it was probably clear to anyone with a functioning brain that something was dangerously wrong.  At the descending grade off the Brooklyn Bridge, the train overshot several stations and continued erratically down the track until reaching the Franklin Avenue station where Luciano proceeded along the wrong lineup (the track of another line) and had to back up several hundred feet into the station.

At this point, many passengers decided (wisely) to exit the train or did so at the next stop Park Place, their last chance to flee to safety. After leaving Park Place, Luciano lost all control of the train and shot pass the Consumer Park station (now Botanic Garden) without stopping and while gaining more and more speed:

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 cars, were killed.  Everything2

While Luciano was held directly responsible for the disaster, five Brooklyn Rapid Transit officials were also indicted on charges of manslaughter. Attorneys for the BRT successfully argued for a change of venue and the trial was held in Nassau County, Long Island. Anti-union sentiments were popular during this era and probably helped in winning an acquittal for the defendants. The BRT, however, went into receivership and eventually merged with the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) in 1923.

The disaster site is still an active but non-revenue (not carrying passengers) part of the subway, on the southbound track of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle at the Q train/ Prospect Park junction. In 1974, a similar kind of accident occurred when a non-revenue train derailed at the exact spot of the 1918 disaster. Traveling at a slower speed and barely occupied, no one was killed and only one car was destroyed.

An excellent, detailed account of this disaster:  THE MALBONE STREET WRECK by Brian J. Cudahy

Photos: The Public “I”

4 comments on “SCAB AT THE FATAL “S” CURVE

  1. Brook says:

    I understand. No, Luciano shouldn’t have been at the controls. How many things boil down to “follow the money?” regardless of what happens?

  2. Brook says:

    What damage inexperience and fear can do.

    • GrayFoxDown says:

      That he was VERY inexperienced is, of course, the very reason Luciano shouldn’t have been at the controls in the first place. It’s not as if he was on a high-speed joyride. But the BRT did indeed take one and all for a ride…a deadly one, as it turned out. I hold it entirely responsible.

  3. Brook says:

    Chilling. Horrible.

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