Volunteer Firemen Lead Rescue Work at Fatal Jersey Railroad Wreck

Volunteer Firemen Lead Rescue Work at Fatal Jersey Railroad Wreck

When the Pennsylvania Railroad’s commuter train, “The Broker,” cracked up at Woodbridge, N. J., on February 6th, 1951, killing 84 and injuring nearly 500, volunteer firemen of New Jersey spearheaded the rescue effort.

This, the third catastrophe involving commuting trains in the New York area within the year, forcibly attested the truism that the first emergency service to arrive at the scene of a major disaster ready to go to work with the trained men and equipment is the fire service.

Within moments after “The Broker” rolled over on its side, spilling torn humanity in all directions, and crushing untold others in the wreckage, local firemen were on the scene, followed all through the night by rescue, emergency, ambulance and fire units from throughout Monmouth and Middlesex Counties.

It was the South Amboy disaster over again, in different guise, perhaps, but nonetheless terrible. But this time there was less contusion in the response and the direction of the aiding forces. This time, again, the fire forces measured up and bore the brunt of the rescue effort.

Twenty-one minutes after the crackup, Perth Amboy General Hospital was already putting victims of the crackup in bed, injuries having been checked and receiving at least emergency treatment. Most of those victims were pulled from the wreckage or picked up by volunteer firemen rescue workers. As the magnitude of the tragedy became known, police broadcasts brought more and more rescue companies and emergency squads rolling in with needed lighting, cutting, forcible entry and other equipment, and personnel trained in emergency first aid work. That the nation’s worst railroad wreck since 1918 wasn’t a greater tragedy is due mainly to their efforts.

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Volunteer Firemen Lead Rescue Operations at Woodbridge Disaster Over 1,000 persons aboard the Pennsylvania Railroad's crack commuter train, the Broker, met disaster on February 6th, resulting in death to 84 and injuries to nearly 500. Volunteer firemen and rescue workers from a wide area saved many lives by fast, efficient operations, such as shown here. Note use of aerial and ground ladders of all types, and life lines, to reach the wrecked cars on a mud embankment. Picture was taken before entire wreck area was illuminated by emergency lights.


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That section of New Jersey had learned a lesson after the South Amboy experience. Hospitals were better prepared. The fire service was less inclined to dispatch equipment without first knowing what was needed, and how much of it was needed. When the accident occurred, communities in the area were already at work setting up improvements in the existing mutual aid program. The greatest need, it is said, is for improvements in communications and control and direction of authority. The greater the disaster, the more services respond, and the greater the possibilities for confusion in direction and authority.

At a fire the chief in charge of the area has authority, absolute and unequivocal. However, at emergencies apart from fire, involving the fire service, such as train wrecks, the question of the jurisdiction and authority of the fire chief is in doubt, at least in some states. But there can be no doubt as to the place of the fireman in the minds of victims of such disasters, who see in the welcoming helmet and uniform of the fireman the needed aid at a time when help is so paramount.

The victims of the Woodbridge tragedy will long remember the volunteer remen and fire rescue units who met the emergency without hesitation, who labored in the drizzle, the mud and the debris, all through the night of Feb. 6th.

There isn’t room in this issue of FIRE ENGINEERING to list all those responding fire and rescue units—and those that stood fast to cover the areas left uncovered by the rush to the rescue at Woodbridge, even if the total number were known.

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