Working a desk at a daily newspaper is like being on a hospital obstetrics team. You help give birth every day, in this case to a new edition that brings information to the world. That means the gamut of emotions, from joy to sadness to the mundane, from hope to despair, from anger to applause.
Forty years ago, on March 24, 1972, the then Journal-News had almost wrapped its Friday sheet at 53 Hudson Ave. in downtown Nyack. Overnight stories had been typeset, photographs engraved, and morning reporters were calling police for updates. Soon, the paper would go to bed and the weekend news push would begin with a new cycle. The city room had its usual hum.
In a flash, as always happens at a newspaper, the rhythm accelerated. Suddenly, the ever-on police radio had channel after channel blaring frantic reports of a major accident on the West Shore Line tracks, a freight-only line at Gilchrest Road in Congers. Before even one sentence was finished, the police reporter was on the phone with Clarkstown, and photographers and reporters in house were scrambled. At first, no one seemed to know where Gilchrest was, and the big map in the city room had to be consulted.
Quickly, reports came in that a bus bound for Nyack High School had been struck, slicing the vehicle in two and dragging part of it 1,000 feet along the rails. Students were dead and others injured. The city editor and the news slot chief (layout editor) began clearing pages and assigning rewrite people who took early phone reports, with constant updates and quickly typed them on manual machines.
Upstairs in the composing room, new layout paste-up sheets were set with the March 24, 1972 datelines and The Journal-News slug line. What would quickly appear on those pages -- photos of the horrific disaster that killed five Nyack High boys and injured dozens, plus reportage and first-person accounts by Journal-News staff -- would write history and bring about significant changes in school bus construction, safety and driver training.
Newspaper staff, accustomed to quick and deliberate work flow when the need arises, once again saw a replay of another Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The next big event in the Hudson Avenue newsroom would be Oct. 20, 1981, when the Brink’s robbery in Nanuet resulted in a guard killed and two Nyack police officers mowed down at a roadblock.
In the days that followed March 24, there would be sad funerals, stories and commentary about the Nyack community and all Rockland coming together, and the trial of the driver, who was convicted of manslaughter but who served no jail time. After that there would be yearly reflections, one including an eerie note that early in the 20th century, on the same rail line in West Nyack, several Nyack High School students were struck and killed by a train at the Old Nyack Turnpike crossing.
In the newsroom on March 24, the tears of that day, wiped away on sleeves as the fast pace of news gathering and presentation unfolded, would not be forgotten, even by emotion-hardened staff.
The writer is a retired 42-year Journal-News writer, editor and photographer who worked with his colleagues on March 24, 1972.