The horrific ’58 Newark Bay bridge disaster that killed a former New York Yankee
It was 63 years ago, on September 15, 1958, that one of the most tragic yet forgotten incidents took place at approximately 10:01am.
A Central Railroad of New Jersey morning commuter train en route to Manhattan ran through a stop signal, derailed and slid off the open Newark Bay lift bridge, into the bay.
According to Wikipedia and reports from newspapers at the time, both diesel locomotives and the first two coaches plunged into Newark Bay, then sank immediately.
The disaster killed 48 people and injured dozens more. A third train car hung off the bridge by a thread for two hours, before what little support it had gave out and toppled into the water.
Among the nearly 50 deaths were two notable names. Former New York Yankee second-baseman George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss was headed to a finance job. He had switched careers after deciding playing and coaching in Major League Baseball was not a long-term goal of his. He was 39 years old.
The other passenger of note was James Carmalt Adams, the brother-in-law of author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut touched on the tragedy in the novel "Slaptstick," adding that his sister died just days later from cancer, leaving the couple's four children without a mother and father.
Some of the accounts of that day, captured by the New York Daily News, are horrifying.
Rescue workers were looking for additional bodies, including that of a 5-month-old baby whose mother escaped from the second car. Every window of the car was smashed - evidence of the frantic struggle of the trapped victims to escape - and it was thought many bodies probably had been swept away by the strong tides.
Among the bodies still in the car was that of a man who appeared to have almost made his escape. His left leg and his left arm were over the window sill but that was as far as he got.
Now here's where it gets weird. We still don't really have the full story on what happened that day.
Multiple investigations at the time blamed the lack of a "dead man's switch," a device designed to be activated or deactivated if the person operating becomes incapacitated. As a result, the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission ordered railroads to install these devices on all passenger locomotives operating in New Jersey.
The thing is, an autopsy revealed that, while the operator of the train had indications of hypertensive heart disease, it was determined he died of asphyxia due to drowning.
The official cause of the accident, however, was never determined. Nor was it reinvestigated.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 producer, writer, and host Joe Votruba. Any opinions expressed are his own.