1951 train wreck recalled in tears

Published in the Home News Tribune 2/05/01

WOODBRIDGE: Helen Anders Rader could hardly hold back tears yesterday as she recalled the horrific aftermath of the Pennsylvania Railroad commuter train crash that derailed 50 years ago in Woodbridge.

"It was an absolute disaster. There were bodies everywhere. It's something you never, ever forget. People walking around bloody. Their families were devastated. It was horrible," said Rader, 74, who was a nurse at Perth Amboy Hospital at the time of the accident.

(JODY SOMERS photo)Councilman Frank Pelzman, Pearl Selinger, a wreck survivor, Councilman Charles Kenny, Frank LaPenta, Woodbridge Historical Association vice president, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski unveil a plaque to be displayed at the Woodbridge train station.

More than 80 people were killed and more than 500 injured on Feb. 6, 1951, when "The Broker," named for the number of
passengers who took the train to their jobs in Wall Street, tried to cross a temporary trestle. Blamed for the accident were the train's speed and a lack of warning lights for the trestle.

Trying to keep the memories alive of those who lost their lives and those who helped survivors, family and friends gathered yesterday at United Methodist Church in Woodbridge. The same church opened its doors for survivors who had nowhere to go after the accident 50 years ago.

"Today, we honor the nurses, police and firemen . . . We honor the residents on Fulton Street, who opened up their homes as first aid stations . . . We honor the average citizen who came that night to help," said Frank LaPenta, who lived just a few blocks from the accident and was one of the first to arrive at the scene.

"At 19, it was difficult to understand what I was seeing. Passengers were strapped in twisted cars, trying to climb out of broken windows," he said to about 150 people at the memorial service sponsored by the Woodbridge Historical Association, which LaPenta heads.

The memorial service gave survivors and witnesses a chance to talk about the tragedy. Police, first aid squads and firemen were presented with certificates of appreciation. A plaque from NJ Transit, which has used the line since 1983, was unveiled and will be posted at the Woodbridge train station as a reminder of the wreck.

"I was in the second car from the front. The car fell down an embankment. When I woke up, a seat was lying across my back and dead people were on top of me," remembered Pearl Selinger, 75, of East Brunswick.

The train was unusually crowded that Tuesday because union members of the Jersey Central, a train that ran almost parallel to the Pennsylvania Railroad line, were on strike.

It was also the first day the temporary trestle was being used. It had been built to provide a detour while the line was being upgraded during construction of the New Jersey Turnpike. Eight days before  the wreck, train engineers were given notice that beginning at 1:01 p.m. Feb. 6, trains were to slow down to 25 mph through Woodbridge. They normally traveled at 60 mph.

About a mile from Woodbridge, with the train still racing between 50 mph and 60 mph, the engine crossed the trestle. The first and second cars fell on their side, while the third and fourth, in which most of the deaths occurred, crashed into each other.

George Dowden, 80, said he normally sat in the third car but had to stand in the fifth car because the train was so crowded.

"I'm here because the Lord planned it that way," Dowden of Livingston said. "The wreck definitely made me appreciate life."

Elene Dwyer, 72, a survivor of the accident, didn't realize how tragic the wreck was until yesterday, while looking at photos set up in the church.

"I look at these pictures and could almost cry," she said. "I don't remember it being this bad because I was probably in shock. A lot of people didn't talk about it."

Chandra M. Hayslett: (732) 565-7262. E-mail [email protected]

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