|1959: Class trip turns to fiery death|
|By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian|
|"Know now that God hath overthrown me, and hath compassed me with his net ... He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head. He hath destroyed
me on every side, and I am gone: and mine hope hath he removed like a tree.''
(Book of Job)
"Why did He do it to them? What had they done to Him; these children ... and we; what have we done?''
(from the Broadway play "J.B.'')
One of the worst accidents in New Jersey history occurred on Oct. 9, 1959, when an empty tanker truck struck a chartered bus carrying 40 Trenton State College coeds and a professor, immediately killing 10 people.
The group was returning to Trenton State from a Friday night performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play "J.B.'' The work was based on the Biblical story of Job, a righteous man whose faith in God was tested by unspeakable suffering.
The bus was stopping for a red light on the southbound side of Route 1 at Ryders Lane in North Brunswick when it was rammed by the truck at approximately 35 miles per hour. The bus' gasoline tank exploded and fire engulfed both vehicles.
Dr. Ernest Sixta, professor of European and American history at the college, tried to maintain calm. He was heard shouting, "Don't panic, don't panic.'' His words were cut off as flames shot
through the bus, killing the 40-year-old Ewing resident and nine other students instantly.
The death toll may have been worse had it not been for bus driver Carmen Nin. Instead of jumping out the front door, the Trenton native went to the back to open the emergency door and
frantically evacuate 30 screaming students.
"I ran through the bus shoving girls out as fast as I could,'' Nini told reporters. ""Some of the girls were hampered by high heels.''
Nini suffered only minor injuries. Also rescued from the bus was Sixta's wife, Helen, who worked at the college library.
A second bus carrying 41 students had made the light and was a few hundred feet ahead when the accident occurred.
"I heard a crash,'' driver James Cunningham said. "I looked in the rear-view mirror. Carmen's bus was on fire. Flames were all over it.''
Cunningham stopped on the shoulder and ran back to the scene of the accident. He carried one student out, but an explosion made it impossible for him to help more.
"I backed off,'' he said. "I couldn't go anymore.''
The truck also caught fire and the driver, Roscoe Poe of Brooklyn, was rescued by firemen and suffered minor burns. Contradicting witnesses' reports, Poe said the bus had stopped at a green light and that he didn't remember hitting the brakes.
A legal controversy was sparked when it was learned that Poe had seven motor vehicle violations in five years. An inspection of the
truck found the brakes were only capable of 50 percent efficiency.
The accident helped prompt New York to adopt a universal inspection policy. New Jersey lawmakers debated the virtues of separate speed limits for commercial trucks, but decided instead on no-truck lanes on major highways.
Four of the women were identified through their dental records:
Yolanda Benson, 19, of Freehold; Judy Tettamanti, 18, of Phillips?
burg; Jane McCormack, 18, of Middletown; and Dorothy Pinchak
Five were burned beyond recognition: Beverly Allen, 20, of New?
ark; Arlene Mayer, 17, of Verona; Rae Steinberg, 18, of Camden;
Nancy Raub, 19, of North Arlington; and Pearl Wright, 18, of
Trying to identify the remains was a surrealistic nightmare, as
grief-stricken parents filled Boylan's Funeral Home in New
Brunswick. One asked funeral director Edward Boylan, "Is there
any hope? Is there any chance she may not be here?''
McCormack was the first to be identified, and her mother showed
Job-like faith after seeing her daughter's corpse. "I don't think
they suffered,'' she said. "The Lord has reasons for doing this. I
know she is with the Lord.''
Dean of students Dr. Charles McCracken tried to console parents at the funeral home. He called Sixta a ""creative, good
"I had one of the girls in my classes,'' he said. "They all had good minds. Now, their parents' dreams are gone.''
A tearful memorial was held at Trenton State's campus the following Tuesday. More than 1,200 students, faculty members, friends and family members
crowded into Calvin Kendall Hall.
Loudspeakers were placed in windows so those who couldn't cram into the auditorium could hear the ceremony.
Dr. Steve Seu, who now lives in Yardley, Pa., was a classmate of Tettamanti and Raub and was 18 at the time.
""For us, we were like every 17- or 18-year-old kid; we thought we were invincible,'' he recalled during a telephone interview. "It was a real slap of reality.
"(The school) was much, much smaller then,'' he said, noting that there were only 200 seniors in his graduating class. "Everyone knew someone or knew
someone who knew someone.
The whole campus was really in a
funk for a long time,''
Three students were listed in
critical condition after the crash.
Seventeen-year-old Linda Mollov
of West Orange and Doris Weis?
mantel, 19, of Newark, died of
burn injuries. Only the third, Jo?
sephine Brancolino, an 18-year-
old who lived at 1600 Prospect
St., Trenton, survived.
Brancolino died in 1998, but her
brother, Richard, now living in
Orlando, Fla, recalled the night of
the crash, which happened the
day before his 15th birthday, and
taking the phone call that broke
the horrible news.
""I was sleeping on the couch
when the phone rang,'' Brancoli?
no said. ""It was the police depart?
ment, they said Josephine had
been in an accident, and they
asked to speak to my mother.
""My mother stayed with her all
night long and prayed all night,''
he said. ""The good Lord saved
But it wasn't the life she had
before the accident.
""She wanted a college educa?
tion,'' Brancolino said. ""She want?
ed to be a teacher. She was very
ambitious, and she would stay up
until 2 in the morning studying.
She worked at Cook's Drug Store
after school and would do her
school work after that.
""She wanted to get married and
to have children.''
Like Job, she had her dreams
taken from her.
Josephine Brancolino was an at?
tractive, petite brunete. She suf?
fered burns on her hands and her
face was badly disfigured. She
spent months in the hospital and
had numerous surgeries. A cous?
in, Earl Brancolino of Hamilton,
remembers that she was hoping
her classmates would visit her,
but few did.
""I think they heard how severely
burned she was,'' he said. ""Peo?
ple don't like seeing things that
make them uncomfortable.''
Worsening her anguish was the
fact that she had an identical
twin, Joan, whose face likely
haunted her as if some ghost from
her lost former life. Fate was as
merciful to Joan as it was cruel to
Josephine; although she attended
Rider College in Lawrenceville,
she had planned on accompanying
her sister to the play, but can?
According to her brother, Joseph?
ine lost her faith.
""She asked, "Why did God let this
happen to me?'' Richard Brancoli?
no said. ""She had wanted to go to
school in Connecticut, but my fa?
ther didn't want her to go so far
from home, and she said if she
had gone there, this would have
Josephine Brancolino made a
long, slow recovery. Relatives es?
timate she had 100 operations.
She received approximately
$100,000 in a settlement from
Maspeth Truck Leasing Co., own?
ers of the vehicle Poe drove. She
could have gotten more but
wasn't willing to go through a
She dated, but never married and
never had children. She got a job
as a social worker helping chil?
dren, and in the mid-1980s she
moved to Florida, as did the rest
of her immediate family. She suf?
fered from insomnia, emphysema
and various other health prob?
For a short period, she lived with
her twin. According to Richard,
Josephine eventually found peace,
little by little, and by the time her
sister Joan died three years ago,
she had rediscovered her faith.
At the memorial ceremony four
days after the crash, the Rev.
George Maher said, ""You did not
invite a scientist to speak here
today; a biologist, a historian,
or a psychologist; because the
how of what has happened is not
important. The important question is a theological one.
""There is no easy answer, because if there was one, you would
have heard it long before this.''
It took nearly 40 years, but it seems that Josephine Brancolino
had finally found the answer.