Recalling Rockville Centre's deadly LIRR train crash 69 years later

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Some 29 people were killed, and more than 100 others were injured, when two Long Island Rail Road trains collided in Rockville Centre at Banks Avenue shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1950.
Some 29 people were killed, and more than 100 others were injured, when two Long Island Rail Road trains collided in Rockville Centre at Banks Avenue shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1950.
Archival Photo

Sixty-nine years ago last Monday, the Nassau Daily Review-Star notified readers about one of the Long Island Rail Road’s deadliest train crashes. The night before, on Feb. 17, 1950, two trains had collided on the tracks in Rockville Centre, near Banks Avenue, killing 29 people, according to original reports, and injuring more than 100.

“Worst chapter in LIRR’s history is written in blood,” read a headline below the newspaper’s front-page photos. Under that, those known to be dead or injured were listed. At the top of the page, the Review-Star promised, “More graphic pictures of train disaster on pages 3, 4, 18.”

At 10:35 p.m., a 12-car eastbound passenger train carrying about 800 passengers passed a red signal light and smashed into a westbound train at Banks Avenue, according to an article in the Long Island News and the Owl. The accident occurred on the one-way gauntlet track, laid in 1948 as part of a grade crossing elimination program. “The trains hit slightly off center and the first cars of each were sheared through the middle, ripping through the roof of the steel cars,” stated the story, published a week after the crash.

Maureen Patten, 87, who was 18 at the time, was on the third car of the train during the crash. She had worked that night at a Woolworth five-and-dime store in Jamaica, Queens, and hopped on the train to head back to Rockville Centre, where she lived with her parents. She was meeting Peter Stewart, whom she would marry five years later, for a date.

Though she normally sat in one of the first two train cars, which made getting a bus home more convenient, she chose that night to ride in the third car, because Stewart was picking her up. Near Banks Avenue, Patten recalled the impact and crashing sound. She waited for the lights to come on and an opportunity to get out of the tilted train car, and was finally able to jump to safety. Stewart stood on a grassy hill nearby, she recalled, relieved to see her. Sirens of ambulances and fire trucks filled the air.

“We didn’t realize the impact of what had happened,” said Patten, who had graduated from St. Agnes High School the year before. “We were just happy to see each other, and we left before we saw any of the terrible things.”

She and Stewart went on their date, and returned to their homes. Patten recalled learning the details of the crash the next morning from newspaper and radio reports. “At that point…I was in a total state of disbelief and shock,” she said.

A life taken too soon

Also on the eastbound train that night was John D. Summerville, 40, of Bohemia. He was president of the Realdex Publishing Company in Jamaica, which printed realty title abstracts, and was returning home later than normal that evening.

His oldest daughter, Patricia Wiltsey, 85, who was 16 at the time, recalled going to a play with her brother, John, that night at Seton Hall High School in Patchogue. After the show, their westbound train was delayed about an hour, and they learned about a crash in Rockville Centre. When they arrived in Sayville to then take a cab home to Bohemia, the taxi driver, who often drove their father, told them that he hadn’t come home yet.

Together with their mother, Helen, they learned of their father’s death. “We spent the rest of the night listening to the radio and we finally heard it — they gave a list of names,” Wiltsey told the Herald. “My mom said they weren’t going to do that until the families were notified, but that didn’t happen. It was awful.

“Every time I see that Feb. 17,” she added, noting the 69th anniversary of the tragic night last Sunday. Her voice trailed off. “It already made me feel kind of bad.”

Wiltsey’s sister, Ellin Lynch, 81, who was 12 at the time, said the sad news came after midnight. She and her siblings moved to Queens Village with their mother, who took over Realdex Publishing.

“She really rallied around the flagpole as they say and, of course, it wasn’t easy for her,” said Lynch, who now lives in Cedarhurst. “There was a lot of love, which we lost, but he’s always in our memory.”

The aftermath

At Rockville Centre’s police headquarters, Lt. Pierre Teets received a frantic call from an unknown woman reporting the accident, the News and the Owl reported. He radioed for patrol cars to investigate, and Sgt. Ross Johnson radioed back to “send everything we have and call for additional help.”

Police contacted Lynbrook’s rescue squad and ambulance, as well as the First Precinct, with the request that it alert authorities in Freeport, Baldwin, Oceanside and East Rockaway. Doctors in the area were also notified, and about 250 responded to the scene. Another 450 firemen and LIRR emergency workers arrived, as well as volunteers.

Within minutes of the crash, local newspapers and press wire services flooded the village with calls. All received the same answer: “Head-on railroad collision. Can’t talk.”

More than 75 victims of the Friday night wreck were treated at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, the News and the Owl reported. The hospital, with a normal bed capacity of 98, was already overcrowded with 129 patients, the story stated, but beds were brought out of storage space to accommodate the influx of injured train passengers. Nineteen beds were installed in the Board of Directors’ room, nurses and doctors worked overtime, about 30 pints of blood were administered and at least 15 major operations were performed.

The Second Baptist Church on Banks Avenue served as a morgue after the wreck, according to the Nassau Daily Review-Star. “It was a gruesome sight,” the Feb. 18 article stated. “The floor became covered with blood as the twisted, mangled bodies of the victims were brought in. . . . In some cases, they were hardly identifiable as human beings.”

Joan Kelly (née Meehan), 85, a senior at South Side High School at the time, noted that her father was very lucky to have come home well before the crash that evening. She learned of the accident the next day, and said some of the boys she went to school with had gone to the tracks to help the first responders.

She recalled, during a phone conversation with the Herald, the many memorial services at St. Agnes in the weeks after the crash. “It upset the whole town,” she said. “They wanted answers.”

Jacob Kiefer, of Baldwin, a motorman on the eastbound train, was arrested and charged with second-degree manslaughter. In subsequent court proceedings, he had claimed that he fainted before the crash. A jury acquitted Kiefer that September, according to “Railroad Wrecks,” by Edgar A. Haine. A month later, the LIRR reported that settlements amounting to nearly $1.2 million had been made to families of the crash victims.

“Life is a learning experience,” said Larry Penner, a transportation historian, advocate and writer who worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration for 31 years. “You try to learn from past history and avoid the same mistakes again.”

Penner, 65, of Great Neck, noted that the LIRR elevated the Babylon branch and others in the 1950s and eliminated a significant number of grade level crossings, which made overall operations safer.

Though rail safety has improved over the years, he added that the LIRR requested another extension, until December 31, 2020, to install Positive Train Control, a system of signals and switches that could prevent potential train crashes, on all trains.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan told the Herald that the LIRR met all PTC requirements last year, and would be rolling out the safety systems in segments over the next two years.

Patten, who now goes by Mary Stewart, lives in Charlotte, N.C. Though her husband died a few years ago, she had seven children with him, and has 10 grandchildren. She is thankful she escaped.

“Had I been on car number one or two,” Patten said, “my whole life would have been over at that point.”