The next day would be her birthday, so rather than take an earlier train home with her father, Pearl Goldsmith lingered at her job in New York City, waiting for her fiancé, Jerry Sullinger, to call about birthday plans.
"It was his fault I took that train," said Pearl, who can now smile when she tells the story.
That train, a steam powered Pennsylvania
Railroad commuter train known as "The Broker," crashed Feb. 6,
1951, on a temporary trestle in Woodbridge, killing 85 and injuring about 500, including Goldsmith, now Sullinger, who visited the Fulton Street crash site last week with her husband Jerry for the first time since the accident.
To mark the 50th anniversary, there will
be a memorial service next Sunday at United Methodist Church on Main
Street, which was used as a first aid station the night of the crash. The service, said the Rev. David Houston, "is to remember those who lost their lives, and recall the fine people who helped others. That night human nature became its best."
NJ Transit, which has used the tracks since 1983, plans to put a plaque on a brick pedestal at the Woodbridge train station. It will read: "In memory of the 85 people who perished on Feb. 6, 1951, when a commuter train derailed 300 feet south of this station, and in recognition of those who came to the aid of the injured."
"Hundreds and hundreds of people were affected by this," said Dr. Ralph Scaccia of Little Silver, who was 16 when he heard his father's name as a list of the dead was read on television that night.
"They mispronounced his name, that was
our only hope. But we knew it was him." Later that night a policeman
came to the door to confirm the news, and three of his cousins returned
from Woodbridge, having identified the body at a make-shift morgue.
"I still remember it like it was yesterday," said Pearl Sullinger.
"The train was extra crowded," she recalled. "Everything was going along fine. I was sitting with friends from my block (in Spotswood) when all of a sudden the train was rocking. My feet flew in the air, my shoes flew off.
"When I woke up, dead people were lying
on top of me. Blood was all over me. My collarbone was broken, my
left arm was broken. There was so much smoke in the air I thought the train
was going to catch on fire. I climbed
through a window and sat down in the mud. A man from the neighborhood brought me into his house and took me to Perth Amboy hospital."
Elene Dwyer of Long Branch also worked with her father, who owned a printing business in New York City. "He was sick that day. I was in the car that went down the embankment. There was so much dirt and dust, I thought the train was on fire. Two of my husband's friends came to help me, and we had to climb over bodies to get out."
Dwyer remembers ambulances coming to the scene, and "gawkers" from the town. She recalls being brought to a bar by her husband's friends. "I was only old enough to drink beer. They said `You need a shot.' I'd never had a shot of whiskey before that."
She hitchhiked home, where her family was waiting with a parish priest. Calling home was virtually impossible, at a time when calls from Woodbridge still went through an operator. That night a family doctor gave her a shot to settle her nerves.
"The next day I went to work on the train. My dad said I had to get back on the horse. It was very upsetting. In those days there was no kind of counseling," said Dwyer.
"The only counseling you had was your family," said Scaccia.
George Dowden of Livingston was commuting from his job in Newark to his home in Ocean Grove. His wife Ruth heard about the accident when her mother called from Detroit. "All she said was, `Turn on the television,"' said Ruth, who recalled CBS newsman Douglas Edwards talking about an accident in Woodbridge.
She recalled having to tell her daughters, then 5 and 3, their father was in a bad accident. Barbara, their 5-year-old, was concerned about "daddy's new Bible, which he'd brought to work that day."
At about 11 p.m., George called from a hospital to say he was OK. He suffered leg injuries, but no bones were broken.
A crowded train
The train was known as The Broker because it carried so many Central Jersey residents to and from the Wall Street area. It had an unusual number of people on it because union members of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, a train that ran on tracks nearly parallel to the Pennsylvania Railroad line, had conducted a "sickness strike."
It was the first day the trestle was used; it had been built to provide a temporary detour while the line was being upgraded during construction of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Eight days before the crash, engineers were given notice that beginning at 1:01 p.m. Feb. 6 trains were to slow to 25 miles per hour through Woodbridge. They normally traveled at 60 mph. However, because steam-powered trains had no speedometer, it was up to the engineer to estimate what the train's speed was.
Before the train left Jersey City, conductor John Bishop said to engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons, "Eleven cars and everything regular ... and don't forget your speed at Woodbridge."
George Dowden recalled that when the train passed the Woodbridge train station, "It was going its normal speed." An investigation by the Interstate Commerce Commission concluded that Fitzsimmons did not slow down.
About a mile from Woodbridge, Bishop was alarmed at the train's speed. He tried to reach an emergency cord, but standing passengers were in his way. At 5:43 p.m. the train crashed.
The engine made it over the temporary trestle. Behind the engine was the tender car, with about 10,000 gallons of water, which provided water to the engine's boilers. It is believed that the centrifugal force of the water shifting in the tender car caused the car to tip, dislodge from the engine and fall from the tracks. The first and second cars fell on their side, while the third and fourth cars crashed into each other. Most of the deaths occurred in these cars.
At that moment, Helen Nagy Keleman, then
11, was watching "Flash Gordon" on television in her Fulton Street
living room. When she heard the noise she went to the front window, screaming when she saw cars on their side. Her father thought she was reacting to something on television. That night Woodbridge Mayor Albert Greiner used her family's telephone to provide live commentary for radio station WCTC.
Among the first to arrive at the scene was Frank LaPenta, now the head of the Historical Association of Woodbridge. When he arrived he saw the cars spilled along Fulton Street, but had no idea the gravity of the situation. "There was an eerie silence. The only noise was the engine hissing. Then I noticed a dead body," LaPenta said.
Joe Nagy was nursing a beer at Little Joe's Tavern on Second Street when several dazed and muddied passengers came into the bar. He remained at the scene until 2 p.m. the following afternoon. He recalled how he grabbed the torso of a dead woman, only to discover her body had been torn in half. "I said, `I gotta go home."'
John Fenick, at the time a Rut-gers student, was driving from his home in Sewaren to Perth Amboy, where he tended bar. He heard the township's emergency whistle, and followed a fire truck to the scene.
Fenick, who later became a doc-tor and mayor of Carteret, recalled his most vivid memory was of a man trapped, crying for help. Fenick looked for a few men to help pry the victim loose. "I got back 10 minutes later and he was dead."
One person inside the train described the confusion to the Perth Amboy Evening News: "People were clawing and punching each other to get clear of the wreckage. I saw one woman go down on the floor. I think she was trampled to death."
The United Methodist Church was used by
the Red Cross and Sal-vation Army, and Bell Telephone installed six
telephones at the church. A call was made to Camp Kilmer in Edison for army blankets and first aid kits. Appeals on radio and television brought volunteer doctors from as far as Philadelphia.
That afternoon Cathleen McCormack had completed her shift at Perth Amboy General Hospital when she heard the plea for volun-teers. Nine months earlier the hos-pital had treated 194 people in-jured in a munitions explosion in South Amboy. Not satisfied with its performance that night, it adopted a disaster plan. "We were very well organized that night," McCormack said.
Another factor aiding rescue was that many at the crash site were recent World War II veterans, many having been witness to the horrors of war and having the skills to administer basic first aid. One of the nephews who identified Frank Scaccia had been a prisoner of war, and another nephew had been assigned to a mortuary unit that identified war dead.
Bob LaPenta, Frank's brother, had an army
surplus ambulance modified for personal use. That night he made
several hospital runs.
According to an account in the Perth Amboy Evening News: "The entire area became a make-shift morgue. Postured in attitudes of frozen horror, the bodies were provided temporary resting places on the sidewalk, in the street, on the porches of the neat, one family homes on Fulton Street."
"The response of the people on Fulton Street was beautiful. They loaned us sheets for bandages, gave us hot water, Vaseline, what-ever we needed," said Sister Mary Louise, who heard the sound of the at what is now the St. Joseph's Seniors Residence on Strawberry Hill.
Don Karantz of Woodbridge, who lived several blocks from the scene, recalled seeing a pickup truck on Main Street, thinking its cargo were mannequins from Christensen's department store. "Then I saw blood dripping and realized, 'My God, they're dead bodies."'
He recalled how the rear cars were on the
tracks, as if nothing was wrong. "Walk up the street and it was
Armageddon," said Karantz.
Fred Houck of Point Pleasant, a passenger in the 11th and final car, walked away from the crash. Dur-ing a routine physical four weeks later he learned he had suffered a fractured skull, according to his daughter, Helen Burke.
Houck organized The Survival Club, which sought to promote rail safety and memorialize the dead. On the first anniversary of the crash he requested the Pennsylva-nia Railroad halt The Broker to memorialize the event. The railroad refused. Houck nonetheless threw a floral wreath of 85 flowers off the moving train on Feb. 6, 1952.
The following April the ICC concluded that the accident was caused by "excessive speed on a curve of a temporary track."
Manslaughter charges were brought against the railroad by Middlesex County Prosecutor Alexander Eber. They were withdrawn when he estimated that it would cost taxpayers $2.1 million to bring the case to trial.
In an interview one year after the accident, Fitzsimmons told the New York World-Telegram and Sun, "Many nights I go to sleep crying. If I wasn't sure I wasn't to blame, I'd have been in Marlboro (the former state mental hospital) long ago. All those people dying! You can't ever get it out of your head. You can't get it out no matter how you try."