The first underground line of the New York City Subway opened on October 1904, almost 35 years after the opening of the first elevated line. New York City subway lines had been consolidated into two privately owned systems – the city was closely involved: all lines were built by the city and leased to the companies.
On January 6, 1915 the morning commute was well underway. About 8 am at Broadway and West 55th Street, an electrical short in a manhole started an underground fire. Three trains containing 2,500 passengers came to a halt. The light went out and emergency lights came on but there was no clue as to the trouble until within a half hour, smoke began to fill the cars. Guards refused to let passengers out, insisting it was against company rules to open doors between stations.
“The panic spread until there was a frantic fight in the darkness,…..Windows were broken, seats torn up and smashed against the panes, and crowds rushed against the end and side doors…..The screams and whimpering of women mingled with the shouts of men, the clattering of broken glass, and the thuds of blows…..Hundreds of persons lay upon the car floors, having been asphyxiated or trampled on in the panic,’ the Times reported. ‘Others escaped from cars only to fall beside the tracks blinded and lungs full of smoke.”
One passenger, 39 year old Ella Grady, lost her life, and more than 210 people were sent to the hospital, overcome by smoke or trampled upon. Fireman arrived on the scene but realized the potentially still-active current was too dangerous for their water hoses and decided to allow the fire to burn itself out as it was confined to two manholes. More than 25 firemen were overcome by fumes as they battled through the smoke and had to be carried to the street level. The accident bought the entire subway system to a standstill until that that afternoon. Around a quarter of a million commuters became stuck on trains after the system stopped in the morning.