Train wreck still raises questions – and tears Bayonne remembers 1958 disaster with prayers, wreath and ceremony

On Sept. 15, 1958, Andrew Gill bordered his usual commuter train to New York City. It was a Tuesday morning after rush hour so that the train had about a quarter of the number of 400 potential passengers.

Shortly following 10 a.m., Central Railroad train No. 3314 out of Bayhead and along the Jersey Shore stopped at Elizabethport on the western shore of Newark Bay. The train plunged off the end of an open bridge, killing 48 of the 100 passengers, including a high executive from one of the larger corporations in the country and a retired New York Yankees baseball player.

No one knew until hours and days later that the train carried an investment banker carrying a brief case that contained $250,000 in negotiable bonds; a federal agent carrying a top secret device for communicating with satellites; the mayor of a town in Southern New Jersey; and others – four dozen of whom would perish when the train plunged off the end of a bridge that opened to allow a boat to pass on Newark Bay.

Questions still remain about the accident, and why the crew ignored at least three warnings to stop and arrived at the edge of the bridge at exactly the wrong moment – sending three cars into the turbulent waters below.

Although some reports suggest that the train engineer, Lloyd Wilburn, then 63, suffered a heart attack before drowning as a result of the crash, the investigation later showed his train moved well-above the 22-mile per hour speed limit for the bridge and passed through three signals notifying him and other crew members that the bridge was open ahead.

A terrible accident

All the safety measures apparently functioned as they should have, including the initial orange warning light, then the red warning light, and, finally, the automatic derailment of the train as it neared the end of the bridge. But the train moving in excess of 42 miles-per-hour plunged off the edge too rapidly for derailment to work, missing the last safeguard – a slab of concrete designed to block this situation.

People inside the train panicked. Some went through windows to escape the sinking cars.

One woman – one of only two survivors from the first car – was propelled out of the window to the surface by the force of the impact with the water.

Ed McCarthy owned a nearby boat yard on the bay and rushed out to help in the rescue after he heard and saw the crash.

His daughters, Jayne Ciasto and Lisa Carter, came to honor their father, who passed away in 1998.

“He saw it happen and rushed over to help,” Ciasto said. “He pulled some of the people out of the water.”

During an interview at the time, McCarthy said he heard a roar and the hiss of water. He said people in the car were screaming for help and the water was covered in blood.

A seaman out of a Coast Guard facility in Staten Island reported the currents were too unpredictable for him to dive in to rescue passengers.

Reports at the time said helicopters and divers had been dispatched to the area, along with other rescuers, but officials later said if people didn’t escape within the first 30 minutes, they didn’t survive.

Two people – including a freelance photographer – died in the rescue effort.

Author Kurt Vonnegut adopted three of the children left as orphans after the crash. One passenger who survived the crash had previously been a survivor of the area’s worst train crash in Pennsylvania seven years earlier.

But because of the current, many families didn’t learn the fate of their loved ones until many days after.

The Gill family, in this regard, was lucky in that they learned the news within hours of the crash, although all these years later, they still feel the ache of the loss.

“But our mother knew instantly,” said Jacqui Lumley, one of Gill’s children. “She had intuition for those things. Later in the day, it was confirmed and we identified him the next morning.”

Remembering the lost

Members of the Gill family came back to Bayonne on Sept. 15, 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the third worst railroad accident in state history.

In a ceremony held near the remaining stanchions of the rail bridge, a New York City fireboat and a Coast Guard Cutter sounded their horns. A Bayonne firefighter rang a bell for each of the victims, and retired Coast Guard Commander Edwin M. Quinn, who was among the rescuers in 1958, placed a wreath containing 50 white carnations into the water. PSE&G, which suspended operations and did some shore clean up for the ceremony, donated $500 to the Bayonne Historical Society to help fund the ceremony.

Mayor Terrence Malloy called the historic event “a tragedy that brought together a community.”

The Gill family was among the 100 people who came to pay their respects and to honor a man they remember as a devoted father and someone caught in the middle of a disaster while he was on his way to work.

Gill worked for the Internal Revenue Service and made frequent trips to and from New York City. Lumley called him “a hardworking man” who attended law school at night under the GI Bill.

Although their father had lived in South Jersey, he had grown up in Bayonne and some members of the extended family still live here. Their mother, Ruth, raised five children afterward – the youngest was 22 months and the oldest 8-years-old.

Francis Gill, Andrew’s brother, called him “intelligent” and remembers growing up with him on Sixth Street in Bayonne.

“We used to swim near here even though the water was polluted,” he recalled.

email to Al Sullivan


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