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Death Beneath the Streets



Map of wreck site
As Edward Luciano began a run as motorman on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit's (BRT) Brighton Beach line on the evening of November 1, 1918, getting home quickly and safely might well have been foremost in his mind. Luciano's career as a motorman had started earlier that very day, when the BRT pressed the twenty-three year-old dispatcher into service after company motormen went out on strike. Weakened by a recent bout with influenza and emotionally anguished by the death of one of his children from flu the week before, Luciano nonetheless complied with his employer's wishes.

Already that day, young Edward had completed a full shift, running a train on the Culver line with little difficulty. But the Brighton Beach line presented challenges that taxed the skills of even experienced motormen, including steep downhill plunges and a difficult "S" turn at the entrance to the Malbone Street tunnel. The train was now running at rush hour, when the schedule demanded speed and the cars were packed to capacity.

Fatigued from his first shift and eager to finish his second, Luciano set his train in motion, and made the inbound run from Manhattan to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge without incident. The return trip, however, would be considerably more eventful.

Hampered by darkness and the vagaries of a system in disarray, signal operators sent Luciano's train on the wrong course at Franklin Avenue. Luciano discovered the error, stopped the train, and reversed direction with the help of a signal crew. Back on course, he headed toward a steep downhill grade and the sharp curve entering the Malbone tunnel.

Photo of worker standing atop wrecked subway car The posted speed for the tunnel entrance was six miles per hour; witnesses estimated that Luciano's train entered the curve at over thirty. The train's first car hung precariously to the track, then derailed upon entering the tunnel. The second car slammed violently into a concrete abutment, losing its roof and one of its sides in the impact. The third car disintegrated into a tangled mass of wood and glass.

Dozens of passengers died immediately, many of them decapitated or impaled by shards of wood and glass. Others were electrocuted by the third rail, which had shut down on derailment but was turned back on by offsite monitors who attributed the shutdown to labor sabotage. Rescuers rushed to the station, to help the dazed and injured and to carry away the dead. The power failure in the tunnel posed a problem for rescuers that was partially solved when automobiles pulled up near the entrance to the station to illuminate the ghastly scene.

Worried friends and relatives came from across the city and waited outside the station for news of loved ones who frequented the Brighton Beach trains. Medical personnel used the Brooklyn Dodger's Ebbets Field as a first aid station. And Mayor John Hylan, a strong opponent of privately operated transit lines like the BRT, arrived on the scene with freshly-milled accusations of transit-interest malfeasance.

Photo of Malbone street wreck
The Malbone Street wreck directly caused the deaths of at least ninety-three people and indirectly contributed to the death of the BRT, which fell into receivership a month later. The accident even managed to kill Malbone Street itself. The street became so synonymous with the grisly subway disaster that its name was later changed to Empire Boulevard.


program transcript | web and photo credits

ABOUT THE PROGRAM | THE SECRET SUBWAY | BEYOND THE IRT | DEATH BENEATH THE STREETS | BIBLIOGRAPHY | TEACHER'S GUIDE

TELEPHONE | BIG DREAM SMALL SCREEN | NEW YORK UNDERGROUND | TECHNOLOGY TIMELINE | FORGOTTEN INVENTORS