The Newsroom At 55 Park Place – Chapter 7 – It Just Couldn’t Happen – But It Did

The Newsroom At 55 Park Place

By Don Storch

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Books By Don Storch

The Newsroom At 55 Park Place
Snakes in the Swamp
If a Passive-Progressive Leads from behind he is a Double Oxymoron

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Dedication

            This book is dedicated to my Mom and Dad, mentors of an only child, with daily memories of loving gratefulness, Viola Pauline (Helmstatt) Storch (1910 – 1969) and George John Storch (1903-1969)

                                                                       And To:

Norman B. Tomlinson Jr

(1927-2017)

Chapter 7

It Just Couldn’t Happen – But It Did

          I worked late last night and was at home when the phone rang. It was Herb the News Editor, “Don, a train went off an open drawbridge in Bayonne . . . get on the scene. I asked whether it was a passenger train or a freight train, “We don’t know, just head to the scene.

            There were no cell phones or GPS in those days, once I got into my car we were out of touch until I found a pay phone.

            I went past Newark Airport in my Pippin Red Hillman Minx convertible and headed toward the Pulaski skyway.  I saw a turn-off before the bridge for Avenue A Bayonne and took it.  I put down my passenger seat visor which held my New Jersey State Police press pass and heard a siren and saw in my rear view mirror an ambulance and flashing red lights.

            I pulled to the side to let it pass, only to find out it was an ABC-TV converted ambulance turned into a television vehicle.  It headed down the left side of two-way Avenue A and I tail-gated it down the wrong side of the street until it entered a gated marina where emergency headquarters were set up in the Elco Marina. I parked my car and headed to the waterfront.

            There I stood in front of a dock that seemed to be sinking into Newark Bay.  A captain from a 30-foot boat yelled out to me, “Press?  Hop aboard if you want to go out to the scene.” I stepped gingerly onto the dock and then on board the boat, with other members of the media.

            I made it a habit to carry a camera with me in my glove compartment, it was a Zeiss icon that my parents brought back for me from Germany and it was hanging around my neck.

            The captain of the boat was James Root and he suggested that the press introduce themselves because we were going to be out in the bay for a while.

            The titans of the New York media seemed to all be aboard, which proved to be somewhat embarrassing for me. Names like the New York Times, Daily News, Daily Mirror, Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, Jersey City Journal, and Life Magazine all rang out until they came to me, Morristown Daily Record.  No one could figure what a reporter from Morristown could be doing aboard.  It didn’t take long before a representative from Life came up to me and offered to buy all the pictures I was to take.  I told him they belonged to the Daily Record.

            We motored out to the scene, where the third of the first three passenger cars was still dangling from the rail trestle while bodies were being gathered with grappling hooks from the bay.   Passengers in the car were using the backs of seats as a ladder to climb out of the train before it too slipped into 40 feet of murky Newark Bay water.

            At this stage reporters from numerous locations were still trying to piece the story together.

            Every form of sea-air-land rescue craft was on the scene.

            What happened, that couldn’t, was: Forty-seven people were killed when a New Jersey Central commuter train from the Jersey Shore plunged off an open drawbridge about 10:15 AM on September 15, 1958. The train carried some 100 passengers largely executives, wealthy Wall Streeters and weekend vacationers, there would have been more but it was a Jewish holiday. On board that train and a destiny with death was Snuffy Stirnweiss, a former second baseman for the New York Yankees.

            To this day the cause of the accident has not been determined.  According to railroad authorities, “It was a routine bridge opening.  Normally, the trains stop when they get the red signal – but this fellow didn’t stop.”

            There were two earlier cautionary signals given to engineer Lloyd Wilburn of Red Bank N.J. and then he ran a red signal 550 feet short of the point of no return. An automatic derailleur threw his train off the tracks – but, somehow, it didn’t stop the train and it continued at a steady speed and plunged over the open drawbridge. The engineer died along with three others of the six-man crew.

            Two 160 ton diesels initially went off the open bridge, one dead heading, and two passenger cars, while the third one dangled on the rail trestle for two-and-a-half hours before sliding into the bay, the remaining two passenger cars stayed on the rail trestle.

            Root, our captain, told me that “Edward McCarthy was the hero of the day.”  He said McCarthy, who owns Elco Marina, went out in a small craft and rescued at least nine passengers.

            When I got back to the newsroom I learned that our photographer was also sent to the scene and managed to get a motorized sequence of photos with his 35 mm camera as the last car slipped off the trestle into the Bay.

             I was assigned the side-bar story and the lead was, “It was awful, it just couldn’t happen – but it did.

To Be Continued . . . 

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