The Jamaica Train Subway Explosion in New York City

About the Jamaica train subway explosion in Queens, New York City, history of the disaster and collision.


William W. Murphy, a 45-year veteran of railroading and just 4 years away from retirement, responded to the "restricted" signal on "C" tower 2 mi. before the train's 1st scheduled stop at Jamaica. With the signal's change to "approach," Murphy resumed his 30-mph speed. The next signal light on "Jay" (for Jamaica) tower showed "restricted" and again Murphy applied the air brakes. They grabbed and wouldn't release. Train 780 and its 12 cars carrying 1,000 homeward-bound passengers ground to a dead stop. Brakeman Bertram N. Biggam started to get the flares to put behind the stalled train.

Close behind on the same mainline track, train 174 with 12 cars and 1,200 passengers thundered toward Jamaica. Motorman Benjamin J. Pokorny obeyed the signal at "C" tower and brought his train to a halt. When the signal changed, he accelerated to 15 mph. In back of him, the "C" tower signal changed again to "restricted," but ahead the signal on "Jay" tower flashed "approach." Train 174 resumed full speed. Too late Pokorny saw the stopped train ahead. In his last seconds of life he pulled the brake cord.

When: At 6:26 P.M. on Wednesday, November 22--Thanksgiving Eve--1950.

Where: Near Jamaica tower at 126th Street and Hillside Avenue in the Richmond Hills district of Queens, New York City.

The Loss: 77 passengers killed; 318 injured, 14 critically.

The Cause: Neither train was equipped with an automatic-repeater signal system, an electronic device mounted in the motorman's cab. Murphy and Pokorny had to rely on signal towers spaced at intervals along their route. Normally this signal-light system worked fine, but if a signal changed after a train had passed a tower, the system didn't work at all. Pokorny should have seen the taillights of the stalled train, if they were on. And that raised an unanswered question, for in a report by the Long Island Railroad to the Public Service Commission it was reported that within a 7-day period the taillights on 50 trains had been inoperative

The Disaster: Passengers aboard train 780 suffered their annoyance in silence. It wouldn't be the 1st time they had arrived home late. There was no warning of danger until the headlight of train 174 bathed the last car in its blinding glare. In seconds the 2 cars were fused together. The front car of Pokorny's train telescoped the rear car of Murphy's train. Those not killed outright were overcome with fear. The trains were dark. Bedlam reigned inside the cars. People physically capable of moving couldn't because of the pileup of dead and injured bodies.

The noise of the collision was heard on 126th Street and Hillside Avenue. Soon help arrived, but it was an hour and 20 minutes before the last passenger was extricated from the bent and twisted cars. Amputations were performed on the spot and acetylene torches were used to free many trapped passengers. Priests administered last rites while doctors administered plasma. For hundreds of New Yorkers the tragedy turned Thanksgiving Day, 1950, into the blackest of black Thursdays.

Aftermath: At the conclusion of a lengthy investigation the cause of the tragedy spelled out "Pokorny." The militaristic verdict: "Disobedience of signals."

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