February 6, 1951: The Woodbridge Train Derailment











WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


On February 6, 1951, a train derailed while crossing a temporary wooden trestle in Woodbridge, New Jersey, killing 85 passengers.


To this day, it is New Jersey's deadliest train wreck. It is the deadliest U.S. train wreck since 1918, and the deadliest U.S. peacetime rail disaster in history.

THE DERAILMENT


At 5pm on February 6, Pennsylvania Railroad train 733 left on its way to Bay Head via the North Jersey Coast Line. Because another nearby train was on strike, the train was carrying far more people than normal: Over 1,000 people in 11 cars.


At the time, laborers were working on the New Jersey Turnpike and needed to work on the main line. As such, the rail traffic was being diverted onto a temporary wooden track to stay out of the way.


A notice went out to train engineers on late January mandating that, if going through Woodbridge, to keep their speeds to 25 mph, as opposed to their typical 60. Before the train took off, the train's conductor reminded engineer Joseph Fitzsimmons of the speed restriction.


However, as he approached Woodbridge, he failed to slow down. The conductor was alarmed by the speed at which the train was moving when it was about 1 mile out of town, and tried to pull the emergency cord. But it was no use.


The train was moving faster than 50 mph when it hit the curve approaching the temporary pathway. The tracks shifted beneath the giant train, and 8 of the 11 cars derailed.


The first 2 fell on their sides, and most people in those cars were okay. The biggest problem was the 3rd and 4th cars. They hit each other as they hurtled down a large embankment. The majority of the 85 deaths were people in these 2 cars.


The 5th and 6th cars were left handing mid air over a street that was glistening from the rainfall. It is alleged that many passengers may have jumped to their deaths, assuming that they would land in water.


The engineer, Fitzsimmons, claimed that he was only going 25 mph, but an inquiry showed that he was going somewhere between 50 and 60. The official cause of the accident was "intense speed on a curve of a temporary track".


Fitzsimmons continued working for the railroad (talk about company loyalty...) but he never operated a train again.


A RESIDENT'S RECOLLECTION (2)


Frank LaPenta was 19 years old when the Woodbridge Train derailment occurred. He was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the disaster.


It was quarter 'til 6 and he had just gotten home from work, parking his car on the street and heading inside when he heard his name being called frantically.


He heard the voice of his friend and neighbor, saying a train went off the track near his uncle's factory. They drove that way, expecting to see a train with its wheels off the track a bit.


But, "we were totally unprepared for what we were about to experience", LaPenta said.


The way he describes the experience could best be summarized as "silent chaos". The train was completely separated, with parts hanging over the embankment and upside down all over. But at the same time, it was so quiet they thought that the cars may be empty. No emergency personnel had arrived yet, so there were no sirens.


LaPenta says that, looking back, you can piece it together: That the very front of the train made it over the temporary track before it started to fall over, and things just continued to fall from there.


He remembered seeing a lot of injured, terrified, and dead people. A well-dressed man who's shiny shoes stuck out to him. A woman screaming for help, the man with her covered in blood. People climbing out of the windows of the cars that were on their sides, dangling on top of the car.


At the time he provided his account, he was 85 years old, and noted that there will not be many people around for much longer to share the story.


So here it is: 69 years ago, a train derailed, killing 85 people and leaving countless more without their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and loved ones. And even if it is just reading this quick 3-minute article, you remembered those people today.


REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodbridge_train_derailment

2. https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/middlesex-county/2016/02/05/resident-recalls-deadly-woodbridge-train-wreck-1951/79640990/

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