By Ed Wendell
It was a quarter to six on the evening of February 6th, 1923 and the residents of Woodhaven and Ozone Park were hunkered down, waiting out a heavy snowstorm. The streets were mostly empty.
The firemen of Truck 142 in Ozone Park were waiting for the night shift to arrive when they were alerted to a nearby fire. Five firemen hopped on the truck and drove into the storm, their route hampered by poor visibility and snow and ice on the roads.
Meanwhile, at the Union Course Station of the Long Island Railroad, Grade Crossing Watchman Joseph Rubin was at his post. In the tower was Robert Brinkley and both men were having trouble seeing either way through the wind and the snow on Atlantic Avenue.
The Union Course Station at the intersection of Rockaway and Atlantic was nearly 90 years old at the time; it was built to service the famed Union Course racetrack but that had closed over 50 years earlier. Residents crossing from one neighborhood to another had no choice but to step over the tracks to do so.
Firefighter Michael Hanley (31) was driving the truck with John Dunne (31), James Griffin (39), William Bine (33) and Adolph Lasch (34) in tow. When they arrived at the crossing, the gates were down, and a local train had just pulled into the station.
Hanley signaled to Rubin and Brinkley to hold the local train and raise the gates so they could cross. Rubin peered up and down Atlantic Avenue and, seeing no danger, signaled Brinkley to raise the gates. It was a tragic decision.
The truck had just started to cross the tracks when to their horror, a Brooklyn-bound express train came speeding out of the driving snowstorm.
By the time Hanley saw the train, the truck was halfway across the tracks and he had no choice but to try and finish the crossing. They had no choice, but they also had no chance.
The train hit the firetruck with such force that it was carried nearly three blocks before the motorman could bring it to a stop. The firetruck, which weighed nearly six tons, was wrecked beyond repair and recognition.
A driver who was in a car behind the firetruck painted a horrific picture. “Those unfortunate firemen never had a ghost of a chance,” he told the Leader-Observer. “The whole thing happened so suddenly they never knew what struck them.”
Killed in the collision were Hanley, Dunne and Griffin, leaving behind 3 widows and 11 children combined.
Within minutes help arrived, and firefighter Lasch was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital with a fractured skull (he eventually recovered). Firefighter Bine was the only one who had time to jump, and he was treated for shock and lacerations.
The condemnation of the Long Island Railroad was swift and furious. The grade crossings along Atlantic Avenue, which had people dodging trains and automobiles on a road that was busy round the clock, had led to many tragedies over the years.
“There is no more dangerous crossing than the Union Course station,” a front-page editorial in the Leader-Observer thundered. “Night and day Rockaway Boulevard is crowded with vehicular traffic while Shaw Avenue (now 80th Street) is used by thousands of commuters and hundreds of school children every day.”
Over time, safety improvements would be made along the route, but it always remained a dangerous crossing. That danger would eventually be eliminated when the entire line was submerged below Atlantic Avenue nearly 2 decades later.
In the meantime, three families were left without a father and two communities mourned the death of three heroes who almost reached the end of their shift before being called on one last fateful job. May the souls of firefighters Hanley, Dunne and Griffin Rest in Peace and may their sacrifices never be forgotten.
This tragic tale will be one of the many related in “The Mayor of Woodhaven: Tales of 1923,” a look back to life in Woodhaven 100 years ago. 1923 was an interesting year in the history of Woodhaven as it began to transform into the community that we are familiar with today.
This presentation will premiere via Zoom on Tuesday, January 10th at 8 p.m. And it will be repeated on the 100th anniversary of this tragic accident (at 7 p.m. on Monday February 6th) at historic Neir’s Tavern, which is located just a few blocks from the site of that tragic night a century ago. Both presentations are free, email us at [email protected] for more information.