Last Wednesday, on the day before Thanksgiving, a handful of residents placed flowers at the Long Island Rail Road’s Kew Gardens’ platform and held a brief moment of silence.
Members from the Richmond Hill Historical Society held an informal memorial for those who died, in remembrance of the worst train wreck in New York State history.
It happened 50 years ago, on the evening before Thanksgiving. At 6:09 p.m., a train traveling from Penn Station to Hempstead, Long Island was carrying passengers meeting their loved ones for the holiday.
As the train approached Jamaica, passing signal block J in Richmond Hill, the engineer, William Murphy, reduced speed to 15 mph and for some reason the air brakes locked.
Murphy couldn’t release them and the train rolled to a complete stop.
It is 6:32 p.m. The train headed to Babylon, leaving from Penn Station four minutes behind the Hempstead train, is barreling down the tracks at about 65 mph.
Suddenly, it slammed into the rear of the stalled train, creating the worst train wreck in LIRR history and the worst in the nation since 1943. Seventy- nine people died.
The impact sent the front of the onrushing train plunging down the middle of the other train’s last car, cutting it in half lengthwise.
Seconds later, as survivors tried to escape the wreck, Richmond Hill residents arrived at the scene with ladders and opened the doors to take out the injured.
“These are people who died in an unfortunate circumstance,” said Nancy Cataldi, president of the historical society. “Residents came out and comforted the people who were in pain.”
Within minutes, fire trucks, ambulances and police cars raced to the scene. Surgeons converted a nearby house into a makeshift operating room.
As the seriously injured were operated on, neighbors wrapped blankets on the others.
Emergency calls went out for blood donations. By midnight, nearly 1,000 donors appeared at Jamaica and Mary Immaculate Hospitals, Cataldi said.
As one of the historical society’s members read an article on the disaster, posted at the platform, Cataldi said that they are trying to make sure that people know what happened in Richmond Hill.
“It’s history,” she said. “Not many in Richmond Hill know about this.”
The group held the memorial at the Kew Gardens platform because the Richmond Hill train stop, near to the accident, no longer exists.
The 1950 tragedy sparked investigations from six local, state and federal agencies. Hearings produced sharp criticism of both railroad policies and the performance of LIRR employees.
There was testimony that the railroad had abandoned using an automatic safety device that would have cut the Babylon train’s speed to 15 mph that could have reduced the crash to a slight bump.
At first, the Queens District Attorney’s Office blamed the stalled train’s engineer for failing to order his brakeman to flag down the Babylon train, but later faulted the Babylon train’s engineer for disregarding a stop-and-proceed signal.
Years later, an LIRR official who was on the stalled train said a flagman had been dispatched.
To reduce human error in future situations, the state Public Service Commission ordered sweeping reforms.
It included placing a conductor or brakeman with the engineer in the front car of every electric train and tightening physical requirements.
Since then, accidents have not occurred on the LIRR.