Prospect Park Subway Station

Steve Burns/WCBS 880

Remembering The Deadly Malbone Street Wreck

November 01, 2018 - 9:59 am

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Thursday marks 100 years since one of the darkest chapters in New York City history.

On Nov. 1, 1918, at least 93 people died in a tunnel outside Prospect Park in the Malbone Street subway wreck. It's still the deadliest rapid transit crash in U.S. history.

Edward Luciano was at the controls of the evening rush hour train, but this story actually begins earlier in the day, says Katherine Reeves at the New York Transit Museum.

"There had been an operator strike that was called for that morning," Reeves told WCBS 880's Steve Burns.

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit company pressed on and pressed the 25-year-old Luciano out of his clerical job and into service.

Subway historian Joe Raskin said Luciano had a couple of hours of training at the most.

"Given his unfamiliarity with the route he was running late and was trying to can't make up time," Raskin said.

Luciano sped past the yellow light, past a sign marking a 6 mile an hour speed limit and into the curve in the tunnel under Malbone Street at what most historians agree was between 30 and 40 miles an hour.

"It was said that you could hear this crash from a mile away," Reeves said.

"It jumped the track, hit the wall and it exploded. Being the wooden trains it just fell apart," Raskin said.

The New York Times offered a haunting scene of surgeons operating at the site by lantern light while priests in the tunnel administered last rites. Ebbets Field three blocks away became a triage space.

"It was major enough to take the last battles of World War I off the front page of the Times," Raskin said.

Luciano uninjured but in a haze stumbled away from the scene but not before muttering to a stunned passenger, "A man has to earn a living."

"It's really everyone is to blame and no one's to blame"

When he was on trial for manslaughter, Luciano sobbed uncontrollably.

"The judge several times has to say if you don't stop crying we can't proceed with this trial," Reeves said.

In the end, Luciano and five others from the BRT were acquitted but Transit Museum Director Concetta Anne Bencivenga says a lot of good came out of this tragedy both immediately and over some time.

"By one o'clock in the morning the strike was over," Bencivenga said. "There became a very strong push for clarity around how much training does somebody need."

It also led to more safety mechanisms to make sure "you can't have a run away train in the New York City subway," Reeves said.

The city was so traumatized by what happened it decided to erase Malbone Street from existence. Today just past that tunnel you'll exit Prospect Park station onto Empire Boulevard.

On Thursday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a centennial commemoration ceremony near the crash site.