The Newark Bay is a tidal bay measuring 8.9km/5.5mi by (average) 1.45km/0.9mi located between the cities of Bayonne (east), Newark (northwest) and Elizabeth (west) in the far northeastern USA, located in the federal state of New Jersey 18km/11mi southwest of New York City and 115km/71mi) northeast of Philadelphia (both measurements in linear distance).
At the time of the accident Newark Bay was crossed by the Newark Bay Lift Bridge, a 3.2km/2mi long steel bridge carrying a quad-track rail line between Elizabeth and Bayonne. The bridge in place at the time of the accident consisted of two long fixed sections on either end, in addition to two pairs of movable sections (“lifts”) in the middle to allow ships to pass under the bridge. The lifts measured 91m/299ft for the longer and 64.25m/211ft for the shorter span, creating gaps measuring 66m/216ft and 41m/134ft wide respectively when opened. Raising the lifts all the way up created an opening 41m/135ft high, which was reduced to 11m/35ft when the span was down and locked for trains to pass over the bridge. The bridge had opened in 1926, being the third version of the crossing.
The bridge’s lifts were protected by three signals on each side, starting 1.2km/0.75mi from the lifts. The signals were connected to the lifts, they couldn’t turn green if the lifts wasn’t locked in place for trains to use. An automatic derailing device was also installed close to the lifts on both sides of the bridge, automatically derailing any train that would approach the bridge while it’s open. The device was deactivated once the lifts were down and locked for trains to cross the bay.
The train involved
CNJ (Central Railroad of New Jersey) train number #3314 was a morning commuter service from Newark to Manhattan consisting of two CNJ EMD GP7 locomotives (number 1532 leading and number 1526 following) and five passenger cars. The EMD GP7 is a four-axle diesel locomotive introduced in 1949, being built in 2734 units for various railways. Each GP7 measures 17.04m/56ft in length at a weight of 112 metric tons and can reach up to 105kph/65mph thanks to a supercharged V16 two-stroke diesel engine. At the time of the accident the train was driven by 63 years old Mister Wilburn, with “fireman” Mister Andrew (42 years old) working as his assistant.
On the 15th of September 1958 a dredger-ship (a swimming excavator, basically)is approaching the Newark Bay Lift Bridge at approximately 9:45am. It won’t fit through the 11m/35ft high gap below the bridge, so an order to raise the lifts is issued. The control center, located in the middle of the bridge between the lifts, thus turns all approach-signals red and raises the lifts up just as CNJ train number 3314 is approaching the bridge from the west at 66kph/41mph. The approach signal for the bridge dictated a 32kph/20mph speed limit, standard for an approach to a red signal.
By 10:00am the train enters the western side of the bridge, still travelling at 66kph/41mph and disregarding the red signals. At the same time the dredger for which the bridge was opened reaches the lifts. CNJ 3314 hits the derailer at full speed and gets bumped off the rails, but due to its speed it carries on right to the end of the fixed section of the bridge. At 10:01am the leading locomotive, slowed but not stopped, runs out of bridge, falling over the edge and plunging 12m/40ft down into Newark Bay. The captain of the dredger manages to narrowly dodge the falling train which hits the water next to his ship.
The second locomotive follows the leading unit, and itself pulls two passenger cars to their doom. The third car, tearing off the car in front, tipps over the edge but is saved by its rear wheelset becoming stuck on the edge, leaving it dangling from the edge of the bridge at a steep angle. The two locomotives and leading two passenger cars sink in an instant, disappearing below the water as soon as they fall in. 46 passengers drown in the leading two passenger cars, along with the two men in the leading locomotive. Another 48 passengers are injured as they escape the submerged train cars or the third car as it dangles from the edge, its leading end breaking the surface of the water but its rear end keeping it from falling in whole.
All passengers in the third car manage to climb to safety, making it onto the bridge as the first responders arrive by boat or by running up the bridge on foot. The rear wheelset of car 3 eventually gives out under the train car’s weight, dropping the car into the bay 2 hours after the accident. Divers go down to the wreckage to count victims, while other responders search the shore downstream for further victims and survivors. They don’t find anyone, those who had died hadn’t even left the train. It’s assumed that most passengers likely didn’t know that something was wrong right up until the train hit the water.
Floating cranes are eventually brought in, with the divers managing to attach chains to the submerged cars and locomotives. The locomotives are raised to the surface first, followed by the train cars the following day.
Investigators find that the signaling-system and derailer had worked as intended, and the bridge operators had followed the mandated procedures when raising the lifts. The problem was that the train had hit the derailer at approximately twice the intended speed, so the resistance from derailing and bumping over the sleepers and the ballast wasn’t enough to actually stop the train ahead of overrunning the end of the bridge.
Autopsies are performed on the bodies of Mister Wilburn and Mister Andrew, finding that Mister Wilburn was suffering from hypertensive heart disease, a term referring to different complications stemming from high blood pressure. However, doctors also find that both men in the cab had died by drowning, so the theory of a heart attack incapacitating Mister Wilburn on the approach to the bridge was rejected as the sole cause for the accident. Furthermore, the question was posed why, if Mister Wilburn had become incapacitated (or simply acted negligently by disregarding signals), his assistant Mister Andrews hadn’t interfered. There was no sign of anything incapacitating him prior to the accident, as far as the investigation knows he was conscious and alert until the end.
At the time of the accident a lot of locomotives were already equipped with a dead man’s switch, a system that requires drivers to either regularly press or release a button/pedal, ensuring that the driver is attentive and in control. If a driver fails to perform the required operation the train’s would trigger an automatic emergency stop. Some CNJ locomotives were fitted with such a system, but #1532 was not among those. CNJ always argued that the device wasn’t needed for their locomotives, since they always had two men in the cab. If the driver became incapacitated the “fireman” (a term left over from the age of steam locomotives) would take control of the train and ensure the safety of the train.
With the train drivers dead the exact cause of the accident was never determined. Mister Wilburn was an experienced train driver, and there were no signs that he would purposely run his train into the water. Had Mister Wilburn purposely ignored the speed limit it might have been explainable why Mister Andrew didn’t interfere, being hesitant to question his superior, why he didn’t interfere in different circumstances is unknown. Following the accident the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities ordered the CNJ to install the Dead Man’s Switch in all their locomotives, regardless of staffing. This largely took away the risk of an accident caused by incapacitated or distracted drivers.
The two locomotives were repaired after being recovered from the bay, with #1532 keeping its number and #1526 being turned into #1531. They were used almost exclusively for freight services from then on, although reports exist of #1532 being spotted with a passenger train at some point. The EMD GP7 disappeared from main line services around 1980, and while a few are preserved in museums quite a fleet, often in modernized and/or modified form, can still be found as shunting locomotives or with small railroads today.
Traffic over the lift bridge sharply declined in the 1960s and 1970s, with the last train crossing the bridge in 1976 before the route across the bay along with operation of the bridge was deemed no longer financially sensible. There were efforts to preserve the bridge as an industrial landmark, but the Coast Guard declared it a navigational hazard and thus the lifts were demolished in 1980, followed by the rest of the bridge in the late 80s. By 2012 the last remaining pieces of the structure were removed. A dead-end track on the western shore of the bay is the only trace of the bridge to remain today.
CNJ lost freight services to Conrail in 1976, while its passenger services were taken over by the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Following those developments the CNJ fell into bankruptcy, hanging on for a few more years before merging with Triangle Industries, a packaging company, in 1986 and essentially disappearing.
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