There’s now a full generation of Kearny residents who never knew our town once had train service connecting Kearny to Hoboken and beyond. And it is very likely there are few who remain who remember that that rail service — Erie Lackawanna back in the day, it eventually evolved into NJ Transit — was responsible for one of the greatest tragedies the town ever saw.
It was a crisp Wednesday morning, Sept. 8, 1965. The new year at Kearny High School was about to kick off. No doubt, there was a freshness in the air that day — a day for new beginnings, for fresh starts everyone. All students were on an equal playing field. Everyone was to begin the school year with a tabula rasa — a fresh slate — with so much opportunity lying ahead.
But for three young Kearny men — two would-be juniors and one would-be sophomore — that newness, that excitement that a new school year brings, all came a tragic and permanent end when as they were crossing the tracks by what was the Elm Street Depot (Garafola Place, it’s called now) they were struck and killed by a fast-moving train, their lives taken away in an instant after all three were thrown at least 100 feet in the air.
They never stood a chance, their friends, police and other eyewitnesses said at the time. The train engineer spotted them when they were a mere 15 feet away — but it took another 400 feet before the westbound express from Hoboken finally came to a complete halt, emergency brakes engaged and all. Some say it took even longer, and it was between Argyle Place and Kearny Avenue where the train came to rest.
The boys’ names remain, unfortunately, forgotten by many, but also synonymous with Kearny and tragedy. They were all friends.
Robert Floyd, one of the victims, was 16 that fateful day and he and his family lived at 19 Howell Place, Kearny. He was to be a KHS junior. He would have been 71 today.
Rodney Murdock, another victim, was also 16 that day — and he and his family lived at 14 Schuyler Court, Kearny. He, like Floyd, was entering his first day as a high school junior. He, too, would have been 71 today.
And Richard Collins, the youngest of the victims, was just 15 at the time of the tragedy. He and his family lived on Forest Street, Kearny. He was heading to school to begin his sophomore year. He would have been 70 today.
Floyd, Murdoch and Collins were with several other friends that day — and they were all walking to school together.
Those other boys in the walking party were fortunate — they were far enough away and weren’t attempting to cross the tracks at that fateful moment. But they all looked on in absolute disbelief and witnessed what happened to their friends. They saw the horror, the ensuing carnage.
How they ever moved on from what they witnessed can’t even be imagined.
We first learned of the tragedy from Kearny’s own Lewis Battista.
Battista says he doesn’t recall what he had for lunch the day prior, but this day, Sept. 8, 1965, is one that has remained with him for the last 55 years, even though he was several years younger than the victims.
“I did not know any of the three boys or any of the other boys they were walking with that were listed in the article,” Battista says. “All the boys were either two or three years older than me. I was going into eighth-grade (at Lincoln School) that day and was the KHS Class of 1970, which was 50 years ago this June. Also, all the boys went to Schuyler School, I went to Roosevelt. Our paths would not have crossed until KHS.”
Battista recalls how the mood in town became very somber after folks learned of the tragedy. And based on news accounts from this newspaper — and the New York Daily News — the tragedy was also reported on AM radio, perhaps 1010 WINS or WCBS 880 — though neither was all news at the time as they are now.
“The entire Town of Kearny was devastated. Even if you did not know the boys, you knew someone who was connected to at least one of the families,” Battista says. “My dad knew one of the families. I remember one of the boys was related (think it was his step-father) to a Kearny DPW employee and in 1965, the DPW garage was located on Devon Street between Midland Avenue and the railroad tracks, one block from the tragedy. The wakes for the boys were in three different funeral homes in Kearny. That was the first time I saw lines outside the funeral homes as people and friends went from one location to another to pay their respects.”
After the tragedy struck, Battista recalls the mayor taking action to ensure there would or couldn’t be a repeat. At least initially.
“The mayor (Joseph M. Healey at the time) ordered the Kearny Police Department to post a crossing guard in the morning at Forest, Elm and Devon streets to order the children to stand behind the down gates and to stop any children from crossing until all trains had completely passed and the gates were in the up position,” he says. “The guards remained at those locations for a number of years. Of course, our first assembly of the new school year, especially at Lincoln School, we were all reminded about train-crossing safety.”
Sept. 8, 1965
“It was my first day of eighth-grade and I was going to the new Beech Street entrance of Lincoln School. The Beech Street entrance was new because that part of Lincoln School had only been completed in early June 1965,” Battista says. “The Kearny Avenue part of the school was still under construction. That morning, I was walking south on Kearny Avenue, and as I crossed Columbia Avenue, I noticed a group of people, students and adults standing on the east side of the train bridge looking toward New York City.
“When I got to center span of the bridge and looked down at the tracks, I noticed an Erie Lackawanna engine and two passenger cars stopped below me just before the train reached the bridge. I also noticed a very large crowd of people had gathered at Elm Street. Someone said that someone had been struck by the train below.
“Not sure what was going on, I continued toward Midland Avenue. At Midland, I made a left turn and as I walked past the Midland Avenue Fire House, a few firefighters were standing outside. As I walked by the firehouse, a car pulled up and a few off duty firefighters exited the car. I heard them say it was very bad, three boys had been hit by a train and the boys were in very bad shape. One of the firefighters was crying. At that point, this 13-year-old boy knew a major tragedy had struck.”
And while Battista knew tragedy struck, a mystery remained — who were the unfortunate three? Kearny being as small as it is — chances were you knew one — or someone who knew one.
“My father, who worked in Kearny, along with many other Kearny parents, spent the morning trying to find out the names of the boys,” Battista recalls. “He later told me, about 11 a.m., he asked a Kearny police officer the names and the KPD officer assured him all the families had been notified. One of the boys’ father had a mild cardiac issue when he was confronted by KPD.
“How times have changed. That morning, only the Kearny police responded. There was no Kearny first aid squad, there were no EMTs on the Fire Department, so they did not respond — only the two police ambulances that transported the victims to West Hudson Hospital.
“It was a horrible day in Kearny.”
Indeed. While this town of 153 years has had its share of bad luck, not much else could compare to losing three teenagers in one day.
Battista, now semi-retired, worked in New York City for 40 years. He recalls how he would use the old NJ Transit Boonton Line, no longer in service in Kearny since around 2002, as one of his ways to get to Manhattan.
“Depending on which part of the city I was assigned, I had three ways to travel into New York City. The bus on the Pike to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Travel to Harrison and take the PATH into the city. The third option until NJ Transit stopped the service was to take the old Erie Lackawanna Transit train from the Arlington Station in Kearny to the Hoboken terminal,” Battista says. “The NJ Transit service was limited to three trains in the AM and three trains in the PM, but the service was reliable and usually always ran, even in the snow.
“I would catch the 8 a.m. eastbound train at Elm Street. Yes, the same train the three boys waited to leave the station that morning. About three times a year, that westbound train, the same train that hit the boys, was running late. So when the gates went down, you would be looking for the arriving train and from the east, that westbound train would come charging through.
“I remember one time our train was in the station and the late westbound train actually came to a full stop before Forest Street and allowed the passengers, including the late comers, to board the train safely. That was not always the case. In the early years, the crossing guards were still there and they would yell at the commuters to stand back — but we had to board the train. I remember the crossing guard yelling at me about three people being hit by a train years earlier as I went around the gate to make my train.
“The next day, I was early and told her I remembered that tragic day. It was still a dangerous station. Eventually, the crossing guards were re-assigned, but the potential for another tragedy was still there. The one saving grace was eventually, the factory where the box car was parked on Track 3 was demolished and houses replaced the factory. That gave you a little more open sight to look for an oncoming westbound train.
“But you had to look in that direction for the oncoming train.”
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.