Malwitz: Memorials pay tribute to the lives and loves of disasters' victims

Published in the Home News Tribune 2/01/01

When I asked my mother to recall Feb. 6, 1951, the night a commuter train crashed in Woodbridge killing 85, she remembered hearing about it at midweek meeting at a church in Elizabeth. She also recalled it happened on one of her kids' birthday. Mine, I told her. Which explains some of my curiosity about the tragedy the day I turned three.

Researching for a story published last Sunday about the 50th anniversary of the crash         was a reminder how much culture has changed in my lifetime.  Communications were crude, and word spread slowly. Calls to and from Woodbridge went through operators, and the system jammed early. One survivor told how her family did not learn she was OK until she walked in the door around midnight.  Television was in its infancy, and remote feeds were impossible that night. People were glued to the radio.

No formal effort was made to counsel victims. One survivor explained how her father made her take the train the next morning. "My dad said I had to get back on the horse . . . In those days there was no kind of grief counseling."

The legal climate was different. One survivor spent a year in the hospital. She was employed by the Hotel Pennsylvania, which was owned by the railroad. Her employer assigned her a lawyer -- a clear conflict of interest. She got $15,000 to cover hospital bills but nothing for pain and suffering.

One year after the accident a group of survivors asked that the train halt at the site on the anniversary of the accident. Nothing doing, said the railroad. The only memorial was Fred J. Houck, leader of the group, dropping a floral arrangement from the moving train.

Compare that to the memorial service yesterday, one year after an Alaska Airlines' flight crashed, killing 88. The airlines arranged for 140 surviving relatives to fly to the site, picking up costs for transportation, hotel and food. It also paid for a granite marker: "To the spirits of the 88 lost. We celebrate their lives and remember them with love."

Finally, this Sunday, there will be a memorial service for the 85 who died in the Woodbridge train wreck 50 years ago. It will begin at noon at the United Methodist Church on Main Street. Later this year NJ Transit, which began using the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks in 1983, will put a memorial plaque at the train station.

As for last Sunday's story two corrections. The name of the mayor of Woodbridge was August   Greiner, not Albert Greiner. The man doing the most work to put together the memorial service, Frank LaPenta, is vice chairman of the Historic Association of Woodbridge, not its head.

Also, Jerome Nelson of Somerset, 81, a former engineer with the railroad, called to say engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons got a bum rap when he was blamed for deadly crash. The crash occurred the day a temporary trestle was first used. Rain softened the ground, and the track could not handle the weight of the train. "It was unfair what they did to Joe. They never let him drive a train again, and he died a broken man," said Nelson.

Rick Malwitz's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. (732) 565-7327. E-mail      [email protected].

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