Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/04/01
By STEVE GIEGERICH
Coincidentally, the conductor on Robert Endlich's northbound commute to Newark that Tuesday morning happened by just as they passed construction crews putting the final touches on a temporary trestle to reroute the tracks around a section of the New Jersey Turnpike, then under construction.
"When is that going to open?" Endlich asked the conductor. Commuting from Red Bank, Endlich -- then an actuary at the Prudential Insurance corporate headquarters in Newark -- had for months borne witness as the spur slowly rose 40 feet above Fulton Street in Woodbridge.
Fishing through his pockets, the conductor produced a sheet of paper. "You know, I think it opens up about 1:35 this afternoon," he told the passenger.
Fifty years later, Endlich remains haunted by a recurring thought: Did anyone ever pass that information along to Joseph Fitzsimmons? The late Point Pleasant resident's name is resurrected on every significant anniversary as the Pennsylvania Railroad line engineer who, at approximately 5:45 on the afternoon of Feb. 6, 1951, vaulted his train off the trestle and onto Fulton Street, killing 85 people and injuring more than 500.
According to later testimony, a week prior to the accident Fitzsimmons had in fact received a directive from the railroad informing all engineers that the opening of the spur would necessitate a speed of no more than 25 mph along that stretch of track, when upwards of 60 mph was the norm.
What is not so clear, however, is if Pennsylvania Railroad officials received the results of a test run conducted barely three hours before "The Broker" began its doomed trip from Newark Penn Station at 5:10 that afternoon.
The Pennsylvania Railroad engineer on the test, the late Edwin P. Gabel, told his nephew Frank Beardsley, the former chief photographer of the Asbury Park Press, that shortly after construction of the spur was completed, he had been ordered to assess the trestle's durability by crossing it with a 12-car freight train. Gabel said he reported to his superiors that the freight train, traveling at 15 mph, caused "that thing to shake and vibrate."
Apparently ignoring Gabel's warning, the railroad allowed two other trains to cross the trestle. The fourth train to cross was The Broker, packed with 1,100 passengers because of a wildcat strike that had shut down the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the other commuter railroad serving the Shore.
It's strange, said Harold Rainear, but until Feb. 6, 1951, he never realized that the train he picked up in Newark en route from his job in New York every afternoon had a name reflecting the inordinate number of passengers hailing from Wall Street.
A matter of routine
Most mornings, Thelma Rainear dropped her husband off at the Allenhurst station as he began the first leg of the daily commute that ended at Rockefeller Center, where he was employed by Standard Oil, now known as the Exxon Mobil Corp. The night before the crash, however, the Rainears had returned late from the city, where Thelma had joined Harold for a Broadway show. And so, after donning the gray flannel suit that was standard issue for businessmen of the day, Harold Rainear told his wife to stay in bed and set off on foot for the station, braving the cold drizzle that would continue into the evening.
Commuting being a matter of ritual, upon boarding The Broker for the return trip home that evening, Rainear found a seat, as always, in the third car where, as was also his habit, he almost immediately fell asleep. "And that's what probably saved me," Rainear, 81, said during an interview at his home in Spring Lake Heights.
"I was looking for a yellow light, a yellow light, a yellow light," the Asbury Park Press reported a "battered" and "unshaven" Joseph Fitzsimmons telling investigators from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and the federal Interstate Commerce Commission from his bed at Perth Amboy General Hospital four days after the crash. He later admitted that, under operating guidelines, a memo such as the one issued in regard to the Woodbridge spur seven days prior to the accident negated the need for a signal.
A conductor aboard the train, John Bishop, testified that prior to departing Newark he'd reminded Fitzsimmons to "slow down" at Woodbridge. When Bishop realized that Fitzsimmons had failed to heed his admonition, the conductor told investigators he sprinted toward an emergency brake cord, his path impeded by the extra passengers aboard due to the labor action against Jersey Central.
Before Bishop could reach the brake cord, the tender car, with about 10,000 gallons of water, skidded off the tracks, dragging the engine and four passenger cars down an embankment onto Fulton Street. Another passenger car was left teetering precariously on the edge of the broken trestle.
In accounts provided to reporters both immediately after the acci-dent and in retrospectives pub-lished through the years, passen-gers aboard the train recalled a jolt accompanied by the thump of cast-iron wheels rushing over wooden railroad ties. The impact of one of the passenger cars slam-ming full force into a concrete abutment broke windows blocks away.
A fateful call
On board The Broker, there fol-lowed an eerie silence that soon gave way to moans of the living and nearly dead. At the Asbury Park Press, then headquartered in Asbury Park, it had been a slow news day when Frank Beardsley answered the telephone in the photo depart-ment shortly after 6 p.m. On the other end of the line was a Woodbridge police detective who owed Beardsley one; the previous fall, Beardsley had slipped the detec-tive extra prints he'd taken of the detective's son playing football. And thus, in an age before all-news radio, mobile television news satellite dishes, 24-hour news channels and
cellular phones beget instantaneous news gather-ing, Frank Beardsley became the first photographer to arrive on the scene.
Wading into the carnage, Beardsley set emotion aside and began recording the spectacle. His award winning shot of rescue workers frantically prying a vic-tim from a tomb of twisted steel remains the defining image of the tragedy. The man in the picture died an hour after his rescue. Retired in 1989 after 45 years as a news photographer, Beardsley called what he captured that day on film "undoubtedly the biggest story, from a human element, that I ever worked on."
Normally The Broker provided Robert Endlich his transportation back to Red Bank each night. "It really was the best commuting train," Endlich recalled during an interview from his home in Middletown.
On Feb. 6, 1951, however, Endlich was not aboard The Broker. Answering the call of duty -- "I really could use the money" -- Endlich stayed on at Prudential to work overtime, grabbing a later train. Arriving at Newark Penn Station, he heard rumors of an accident down the line, the magnitude unknown until Endlich's train approached Woodbridge on the old tracks.
"Unless you have a strong stomach, don't take a look out the right side," the conductor warned the passengers.
The train stopped and, within moments, Endlich found himself in the company of survivors -- be-draggled, bloodied, wet and cold.
Endlich still chokes up as he re-counts the scene when, barely an hour later, his train arrived at Red Bank: "I'll never forget all the families lined up at the station as our train pulled in, hoping against hope that a loved one was on the train. I've never seen any-thing like it; mothers holding their babies, the terror on their faces, the hope on their faces . . ."
Dolores Ryan of Rumson, 2 1/2 months pregnant, was not among those waiting in Red Bank for a train that never arrived. Ryan, in fact, was unaware there had been an accident until a stranger called to inform her that her husband, John, and father-in-law, Bernard, were among the injured lying on the floor of the stranger's Woodbridge home, awaiting transporta-tion to the hospital. Neither man, the stranger reported, had been seriously injured.
The residual damage inflicted up-on the Ryan family came later: In the ensuing days, Bernard Ryan suffered three heart attacks, which he survived. And a day after the accident, traumatized by the telephone call and her hus-band's close brush with death, Dolores Ryan had a miscarriage.
Stories of the kindness of strang-ers in the accident's aftermath are legendary, and the tale of a stranger who helped John and Bernard Ryan, who often com-muted together to Manhattan, was no exception. The stranger who took in the Ryan's and count-less others had recently installed new carpeting that, within minutes of the crash, was saturated with blood. Following their recovery, the Ryan family joined many other victims in sending the woman money to replace the carpet.
John Ryan, who passed away last May, was also the beneficiary of a fellow passenger who, to ward off the persistent drizzle, planted a fedora atop his head to replace the one lost by Ryan when The Broker went off the railroad trestle.
Inside the hat, the Ryan's found the name of the rightful owner: Edward T. McDonough, the father, Dolores Ryan realized, of a high school classmate. McDonough's name then appeared in the newspaper. He was among the dead. After the funeral, Dolores Ryan returned the fedora to McDonough's grateful family.
In 1951, the Jersey Shore was not the sprawling mass of shopping centers and subdivisions that it is today. Three years before the opening of the Garden State Parkway began transforming it into a suburban enclave, the Shore more resembled a series of inter-connected small towns, all of which were touched, in one form or another, by the events in Woodbridge that rainy night.
"Everybody at the Shore had a relative or a friend or a friend of a family friend on that train," Frank Beardsley said.
Said Thelma Rainear: "I went down to Cookman Avenue (then the area's main shopping district in downtown Asbury Park) a few days later, and there was a still-ness everywhere. If you went into a store, you'd encounter someone who lost a friend or a neighbor. It cast a pall over the entire community."
Thelma Rainear had been waiting in the Rainears' car at the Allenhurst station when someone rapped on her window to inform her there had been an accident, no details, and told her she "might as well go home."
For the better part of four hours, she waited for word until, finally, someone came to the door with news that "Mr. Rainear is all right, but he's hurt."
"What do you mean, hurt?" Thelma Rainear asked.
"He has a bump on his head," said the messenger.
"A bump on his head." Harold Rainear, seated in an easy chair in his living room, chuckled and pointed to the gouge stretching from his eyebrows to the hairline.
Accompanied by her minister from the First Methodist Church in Asbury Park, Thelma Rainear headed immediately to Perth Amboy General Hospital, the trip blessedly uninterrupted by a radio broadcast that erroneously listed Harold Rainear as among the dead.
At Perth Amboy, Thelma found her husband alive, if not entirely well, on the hallway floor of a hospital long since stretched beyond capacity. "I got the tickets," Harold announced as his wife rushed to his side. During lunch that afternoon he'd purchased a pair of ducats for the musical, "Where's Charlie?"
"We never went, obviously," Harold Rainear said.
When Harold Rainear awoke from his regular afternoon nap aboard The Broker, he was cold, wet and lying outside the third passenger car; he remembers nothing of the actual accident and doesn't know how he managed to escape more serious injury. Rainear's chin was shattered, as was his right shoulder. The gash in his forehead, miraculously, did not result in a skull fracture. The next day Rainear was transferred to Fitkin Hospital in Neptune, now Jersey Shore Medical Center. 'We felt sorry for him'
While the bereaved buried loved ones and the injured convalesced, the authorities launched a full-scale investigation into the acci-dent. Four months after The Bro-ker derailed, the Board of Public Utilities cited Joseph Fitzsimmons for excessive speed and the rail-road for failure to post warning signals. Criminal charges against the railroad were dropped when it was determined the fine to be assessed for even 85 counts of manslaughter would never exceed $1,000. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Railroad paid out $15 million in damages. (Fitzsimmons died in the 1970s.)
Rainear, for one, harbors no hard feelings toward the man held responsible for the wreck that killed so many of the men and women he saw each day. "We never felt any animosity" toward Fitzsimmons, he said. "If anything, we felt sorry for him that he didn't die with the rest of them."
Thelma Rainear continued, "What a terrible thing it must have been for him to live with, even though it wasn't really his fault."
In May 1951, for the first time since the accident, Harold Rainear climbed aboard a train bound for Manhattan. His wife joined him on his initial trip back to the office.
But eventually Rainear lapsed back into the routine. In the mid-1960s, Exxon transferred him to Miami and, 10 years later, to Houston. Before retiring and re-turning to the Jersey Shore in 1983, Harold Rainear held a job that took him all over the world.
Despite the trauma that visited him a half century ago, Rainear said that traveling never posed a problem for him. Once he recovered the use of his shoulder, life went on as planned for Harold and Thelma Rainear.
Only occasionally do they discuss what occurred on Feb. 6, 1951. And yet the reminders linger in myriad ways: The scar on Rainear's forehead being the most visible; the fact that this Tuesday 50 years will have passed since Harold last donned a gray flannel suit bespeaks something else entirely.
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