Drilling the IRT
When drilling began for the original Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) system in 1900, the IRT Company recruited miners as skilled laborers useful for their underground experience. The miners made $3.50 a day and put up with a working environment that held all the terrors of an actual mine: rock slides, patches of loose gravel, and sudden encounters with underground ponds. There were a reported 16 deaths during the original construction.
The Fort George Tunnel Collapse
A majority of the deaths during that initial construction were the result of the worst subway construction accident in the city’s history: 10 workers died when the roof of Fort George Tunnel collapsed in 1903. The IRT finally opened on October 27, 1904, running from City Hall to 145th Street at Broadway.
Chinese Gang Warfare
When the Tong gangs ran the isolated settlement of Chinatown in the early days of the 20th century, a common strategy for the disposal of bodies was to stash them in secret tunnels off the subway.
The Malbone Street Wreck
In the deadliest single event ever to befall the subway system, over 100 people were killed in the Malbone Street Wreck of 1918. A wooden five-car subway train derailed just before Prospect Park Station when an out-of-control driver, gone unnoticed due to a lack of subway attendants following a worker strike, took a particularly tight curve at 30 miles per hour when it was meant for just six. The passengers were crushed in their wooden train car.
Times Square Breakdown
Speaking of catastrophic mechanical failures, a broken track switch at Times Square caused a subway car to crash straight into the wall in 1928, killing 16 and injuring 100.
Before the High Line was a park, and before it was even an elevated railroad, intra-city shipping ran via street-level trains moving down the West side of Manhattan. So many accidents occurred that the route was nicknamed Death Avenue.
The riders might be the most visible victims of the subway, but train drivers have often suffered worse fates. A 1968 New York Magazine feature on “Subways and Safety” by Sophy Burnham tells the gruesome story of the suicidal motorman John P. Murren Jr., who in 1952 drove an empty IRT train into the back of another vacant train docked at Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, crumpling the car and toppling sideways. Murren was 37 years old and had a record of accidents, but this one was intentional — he didn’t even try to put the brakes on.
An empty Independent (IND, separate from the IRT and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit or BMT) train crashed into a Bronx terminal wall and the motorman was trapped in the cab. He had to have his foot amputated before he could be rescued, Burnham recounts.
In November 1965, 800,000 people were stranded for six hours in dark subway tunnels. Transit police walked people out along the tracks while warming them with emergency blankets. There are no recorded deaths, but how freaky would that be?
What does the subway run on? Electricity! And what effect does all that electricity have on the human body? Instant death! In 1969, a passenger was electrocuted when he inadvisably walked out of a stalled train into a tunnel and accidentally touched the third rail that delivers power to the trains.
At 7:45 am on Wednesday, May 20, 1970, an empty IND train collided with a crowded rush-hour subway train and split the fifth car in half. Two people were killed and 71 injured.
Suicide via Third Rail
Gerard Coury, a shirtless, down-on-his-luck 27-year-old from Connecticut, was taunted by a mob of passengers at 42nd Street, who jeered and pelted him with cans. Goaded into a state of panic, Linda Wolfe writes, Coury, who may have been under the influence of hallucinogenics, jumped onto the subway tracks, hit the third rail and died. In his disturbed state, the youth reached out and touched the rail again intentionally after the initial contact.
In 1991, driver Robert Ray was drunk when he derailed a southbound four train, killing five passengers and injuring 200. He survived and was later convicted of manslaughter.
OG Subway Pusher
The 38-year-old Eloise Ellis might have become the first serial subway pusher when, in 1993, she shoved two passengers in front of two trains at two different stations over the course of one afternoon, notes Daniel Martell, a psychologist who studies the impulse to push people onto the rails and its perpetrators. The pushers, he explains, are often escaped or neglected mental patients who think they are defending themselves or “helping” their unwitting victims.
Reuben Harris, 42, pushed a 63-year-old grandmother into an oncoming train, and promptly walked away. He was quickly apprehended.
A woman in her 20s fainted and fell onto the tracks just before a 5 train rolled into a station. Lesson: Make sure you keep your blood sugar up.
Teenager Brant Rowe was killed after he wandered onto the subway tracks and strolled 200 feet inside the tunnel. The subway was shut down and a search called, but the MTA decided to reopen the tunnel. Rowe’s family believes he may have been saved if the search had gone on for longer.
An 88-year-old woman was killed when her clothing caught in the steps of a moving escalator. She got tangled and was quickly asphyxiated, shocking bystanders and inducing mass paranoia of moving staircases.
A drunk homeless man named Ryan Beauchamp got in an unprovoked fight with college student Joshua Basin at the Bedford Avenue stop and dragged Basin onto the tracks. Beauchamp clambered out before the train came, but Basin wasn’t so lucky.