The Forgotten Brooklyn Elevated Train Crash Of 1923

June 25, 1923 Intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues

Photo © Osmund Leviness

“Those who died were fortunate it seemed to me when I looked inside the cars. As long as I live I can never forget it. All the people were in a mass there, struggling and screaming, with blood running over them. They all seemed to be bleeding or stained with blood. One woman’s head was terribly cut on top, and one jaw seemed to be crushed in. The hand of another woman was almost cut off. One woman I took out through a window died a few minutes after I carried her into the post office. I can’t forget the inside of those cars. They looked like my idea of purgatory.” –  Traffic Officer Joseph J. Ryan who was on the scene immediately after the crash.

This incredible accident happened 89 years ago, Monday, June 25, 1923  as two cars of the BMT derailed and plunged 35 feet into the street at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn.

Surveying the carnage it is amazing that only 8 were killed and 70 injured in this train accident.

The motorman, Edwin P. Parcells survived and told investigators he was coasting, going only 12 mph as he was only 150 feet east of the Fifth Avenue station and preparing to come to a stop. There was a bump and he applied the emergency brakes. But there was nothing to be done as he felt the train grind to the right and begin to leave the tracks and fall over the trestle.

When the first train car went over the guardrail and landed on its side, it was more of a bump than a hard crash. But a few seconds later as dust and smoke were rising from the train and screams for help were heard from the first car, the second car, which was hanging over the guardrail dropped with a sickening crash headfirst onto the pavement and telescoped into the first car. Most of those who were killed were in this second car. It was later determined that the second car was the one that had actually derailed and pushed the first car off of the elevated tracks.

The driver of the automobile in the foreground, Douglas C. Fonda of West Orange N.J., narrowly escaped death when the first car of the train came down on the hood of his Dodge.

An investigation over the next week showed the cause of the accident to be a combination of many factors. The equipment on the carriage of the train was worn and faulty. Many of the guardrails and ties were rotten which enabled the cars to fall to the street. Spikes were not in contact with the road bed, bolts were loose and the rails spread apart too far in some sections.

This accident brought back bad memories to New Yorker’s of the terrible Malbone Street Wreck which had occurred less than five years previously on November 1, 1918. Over 100 people were killed in that subway catastrophe.

Below are two alternate views of the Atlantic Avenue crash.

Photo © Eddie Jackson New York Daily News

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4 thoughts on “The Forgotten Brooklyn Elevated Train Crash Of 1923

  1. Antonio Mondesire

    Safety records on rail transit elevated structures in New York City have improved significantly in the remaining 20th century + into the 21st since this particular accident + the famous 1918 Malbone Street derailment — ironically, both in Brooklyn — several years + several miles apart. From mid 20th century to present, I personally have never – ever (and gratefully so) recall or have witnessed any accident(s) of this magnitude — of passenger service trips — on the system’s elevated sections. Most New Yorkers love to complain about the “subways”. No system has “perfect” service. However, in terms of safety — with high ridership volumes, high trip volumes and the sheer intensity of steel on steel operations — from an engineering perspective — the good safety records are somewhat miraculous. Kudos are required for the original private companies (now state “authorities”) that have operated / still operate NYC rail transit service in the past eight decades.. In this context — to keep it real — please keep up the good work. If you ride any subway / metro / light rail / commuter rail train, be cognizant of safety.

    Reply
    1. Robert Hill

      This was an interesting article in that I had no idea of the number of factors that contributed to this el derailment. And you are right to say that to date there has not been an el derailment of the magnitude described in the 1923 incident in Brooklyn, at least with respect to the New York Transit system. Unfortunately, being a native Chicagoan, I can’t say the same for the “L”. The CTA has had numerous derailments in the later part of the 20th century. A number of the derailments involved trains actually falling from the el tracks with subsequent fatalities, not to mention injuries. In fact, in 1974, I was on a dowtown-loop Ravenswood “L” that took an extremely sharp curve far to fast. It was a miracle that the last two cars of that six-car train didn’t end up in the street for as far as they tilted through that curve.

      Reply
  2. Antonio Mondesire

    I am aware of Chicago’s CTA operations and derailments over the years. In fact, I had a strong vivid dream — set in the late 1950s — of a NYC IRT Low V train derailing and plunging onto the street on 216th Street / White Plains Road — an area frequented in my childhood. The following morning — on February 4, 1977 — I awoke — to the shocking news — of a major derailment on the Chicago Loop. See this link for the details:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1977_Chicago_Loop_derailment

    I was speechless. A rush hour CTA train colliding with another and plunged into the street filled to the brim with passengers. From a NYC perspective, that is nightmarish on steroids. Needless to say, I was slightly traumatized by this premonition for a couple of hours. It also contributed to the “burn” to pursue graduate work in “Transporation Planing & Enginnering” at the present NYU / Poly (formerly New York Polytechnic Institute).

    What concerns me these days — spring / summer 2013 — are a handful of derailments of passenger operations on straight “well maintained” tangent track. MTA Metro-North in Connecticut, MTA Broadway #1 line and outside of Paris — all relatively recent. Let’s include the oil carrying freight train in Quebec. What is the take away from all of this? First, if you have an inquisitive “engineering” thought process, you might like to research “what makes a train derail on straight track”? Second — and more important is — if you ride the rails, be aware + respectful of safety AND grateful for the professionals committed to maintaining safe operations on those trains you and I ride. In fact, take a moment to greet them + thank them. Appreciation is golden / Life is precious.

    Reply

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