On Sunday, April 26th, 1942, Louis Viebuchen, a 48 year old resident of Newark, New Jersey, arrived at work in the late afternoon. Viebuchen was a motorman on the Hudson and Manhattan railroad, with over twenty years of experience. At 4:42 PM he made the first of three round trips from Newark to New York. The route is almost nine miles long. Viebuchen took a dinner break at 7:40 PM. He didn’t eat anything, but he drank “five beers.” He didn’t return to work in time to take his usual 9:32 train to New York, so a substitute motorman took the train. Viebuchen returned to work by 10:30 and was given the next train to New York.
Viebuchen’s train with several hundred people on board departed Newark at 10:32. As it approached the Exchange Place station, the last stop in New Jersey, about 75 feet below street level, the train sped up. The train was going about 60 miles per hour, 6 times the usual speed. The train derailed.
“A flash as the third rail short-circuited [and] lighted the scene brilliantly for a moment. Then there was total darkness both on the station and the train. The screams of the panic-stricken passengers, the grinding of steel and the crash of glass filled the dark cavernous space.” (New York Sun, April 27, 1942, p. 2.)
At the same time as Viebuchen’s eastbound train was derailing and crashing, a train from New York stopped at the Exchange Place station. The passengers fled the train and went up to the street in the dark.
Hundreds of passengers were trapped in darkness and acrid fumes as a fire started immediately after the crash. The accident happened as the train, bound for New York from Newark, entered the station.
The first car detached from the others and careened 100 feet up the track to the east end of the station, knocking down signal equipment and tearing up the third rail as it hurtled along. It caught fire and, after the passengers escaped, burned out, becoming charred and blackened throughout, its windows smashed ind its seats thrown about.
The second and third cars remained on the track, with the third car telescoped into the second and its rear end smashed into the concrete of the three-foot station platform. The fourth car, detached from the third, mounted the platform, pushing a runway for itself through the concrete. The fifth remained on the track, to one side and nearly parallel to the fourth, only one truck of which remained at the roadbed. The sixth trailed behind the fifth. (New York Times, April 27, 1942.)
…Martin Stephen, 16 years old, found staggering toward an exit with his mother, Mrs. Anna Stephen, 36 years old, in his arms. His own head was covered with blood and his clothes were in shreds.
In the ambulance taking them to the Hospital he said that his mother and he were on their way home to Woodside, Queens, after visiting an aunt in Union, N.J., who had a party for her twin sons, home on a furlough from the army.
“I was suddenly knocked flat on my face,” he said. “My mother was thrown to the floor alongside of me. I tried to talk to her but got no answer. People in the car were shouting and stepping all over us. There were no lights in the car and windows were being broken by persons trying to get out of the car. I was dizzy, but I got up, picked my mother from the floor, and put her on the bench. I then got up on the seat and kicked out the lower window of the car. I got out and then dragged my mother out. Then other men helped me to bring my mother to the street.”
Martin did not know at the time why his mother lay so still. She was dead, apparently killed instantly. A doctor said so after, an examination of the woman at the hospital. (New York Sun, April 27, 1942.)
Five people were killed and over 200 were injured. The wreck was described as the worst in Jersey City’s history. Every available policeman and fireman helped with the disaster. Fortunately the elevators were working. There were not enough ambulances so city buses and taxis were used to transport the wounded to hospitals.
The Exchange Place station’s ventilation system was knocked out. Rescue workers wore gas masks. There was a power failure on the railroad line and other trains stopped before they reached their destinations and the passengers walked on the tracks to the nearest stations. Telephone cables were severed, effecting telecommunications in Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and Northern New Jersey. For the next few days train service connecting Jersey City and Lower Manhattan was restricted.
The motorman claimed the brakes on his train failed. He stated incorrectly that he was headed “westbound to Newark,” when in fact he was going “eastbound to New York.” He admitted that he drunk five glasses of beer while sitting in a park near the Newark terminal. He said he was completely sober and not intoxicated. His blood had “an alcoholic content of 12 per cent by weight.” In 1929 the motorman was convicted of drunk driving while he was driving his car.
After the accident, until he was freed on bail, Viebuchen was “held in Hudson County jail on five counts of manslaughter and one charge of operating a public conveyance while under the influence of liquor.” The prosecutor for the state said that Viebuchen was “guilty of gross negligence on four counts, ‘speeding, disregard of signals, failure to apply brakes and drunkenness.'”
After a five day trial, in December 1942, the jury of ten men and two women deliberated for six hours, from 5:30-11:45. Judge Lewis B. Eastmead read the verdict and Viebuchen “was acquitted on all five counts of manslaughter.” The motorman’s eyes were filed with tears; his wife, sitting with the spectators, cried quietly. “In freeing Mr. Viebuchen, Judge Eastmead wished him a merry Christmas.” (New York Times, December 19, 1942)
PM, April 27, 1942, pp. 2-3 (Photos by Weegee)
Hudson-Manhattan Train Jumps Rails in Station… …4 Are Killed, 260 Are Reported Hurt
1. Four people died and 260 were injured when New York-bound Hudson-Manhattan train from Newark jumped rails 10:50 last night in Jersey City Exchange Pl. Station. First two cars of train telescoped, left; third car landed on platform. Cause of the crash had not been determined early today. The motorman was arrested on a manslaughter charge.
2. Firemen dig into rammed cars. They used acetylene torch to free 13-year-old Negro child in one car. The child was taken to hospital with more than 200 other people.
3. Inside of car shown at right in first photo looked like this. Hats, packages, other articles carried by passengers were strewn around. This car, third in train, was first to jump track. Andrew Sabol, of Brooklyn, a passenger, said: “As the train came into the station it began lurching from side to side. Then it stopped. Lights went out.”
4. After it came to rest, first car of train tilted at angle. Service on busy Newark-New York City line was held up for hours. Crash cut telephone cables, disrupting service for 275,000 phones in Staten Island, Jersey City and Newark.
PM Photos by Weegee.
On Monday, April 27th, 1942, Weegee, a 42 year old resident of New York City, and a freelance photographer with over twenty years of experience, drove from Manhattan to Jersey City, presumably around midnight through the Holland Tunnel (a National Historic Landmark as designated by the by the U.S. Department of the Interior). Weegee descended into the darkness of the Exchange Place tube station and made several great photos of the aftermath of the horrific accident. Low ridership due to the construction of tunnels under and bridges over the Hudson River led to the bankruptcy and transformation of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad into the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, around 1962. The PATH is a part of our everyday commute to and from the archives and collections.
A map with key locations: Newark Penn Station, Weegee Archive, Exchange Place station, and Weegee’s home in lower Manhattan.