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Although disasters like derailments and crashes are rare in the New York City subway, they do happen. Though recent derailments have not resulted in great tragedy, thanks to more efficient technologies, the subway disasters of the past often caused great harm to many. Fortunately, New York has never had another incident like the Malbone Street derailment of 1918, pictured above, although transit underground has not been perfect in the nearly century since.
The worst subway accident in New York’s history happened in 1918. A conductor, filling in for another motorman, who had never driven a train in his life, lost control while entering a tunnel at Malbone Street in Brooklyn on the Brighton Line. The amateur conductor killed 97 people and injured over 200.
The New York Times reported of the conductor’s state, “On the way to Flatbush the motorman said he had no intention of running away. He said he remembered nothing until he found himself at home, following the accident. He does not know how he managed to get out of the wreck, nor how he got home. He says he has an indistinct recollection of having boarded a trolley car but cannot remember what car it was. He was seated in a chair, pale as death, when the detectives reached his home. He was very nervous and seemed to be on the verge of a collapse.”
An excavation worker survived being sucked through a crack in a subway tunnel under the East River in 1916. He was sucked through the river and ejected into the air when the pressurized tunnel cracked.
On September 11th, 1905 a subway train took a turn too fast and derailed down Ninth Avenue. The train was going 30 MPH on a 9MPH curve. Motorman Paul Kelly broke quickly, realizing his mistake, causing the lead car to remain in place while the second car was thrown off the tracks and down to the street. 13 were killed and 48 were seriously injured.
In 1942, a Hudson River train heading from Newark to Manhattan, skipped the rail, killing 5 and injuring 263. Most of the injuries were caused by trampling during crowd panic.Motorman Louis Austin Vierbucken was charged with manslaughter despite authorities being unable to find any negligence on his part.
In 1991, a 4 train derailed at Union Square and killed five while injuring more than 200. A drunk motorman, Robert Ray, went more than 40 MPH where the speed limit was only 10 MPH. Ray was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in 2002, after serving only two-thirds of his sentence, despite showing, “a depraved indifference for the lives of his victims.”
6. A Firebomb
In 1994, Edward Leary exploded a homemade firebomb on a Brooklyn subway car. The car engulfed in flames injuring Leary and over 40 others.
The New York Times reported, “Law-enforcement officials said the firebomb, a mayonnaise jar filled with a flammable liquid, ignited shortly after 1:30 P.M. in a crowded car on a No. 4 train on the Lexington Avenue IRT. They said the device appeared very similar to one that injured two teenagers on another subway line last Friday.”
The second worst subway disaster in New York City occurred in 1928. Due to a faulty switch, an express subway train at Times Square derailed killing 18 and injuring 100.