Looking Back: 1959 Bus Tragedy
Fifty years ago this month, a tragic crash took the lives of 11 students and one beloved professor.
The following was taken from newspaper clippings in the State Signal, The Trenton Times, the Trentonian, and the New York Times, as well as from conversations with alumni.
In the early morning hours of October 9, 1959, two busloads of Trenton State College students, faculty, and staff were traveling back to campus from New York City when tragedy struck. Earlier that evening, the group had attended a performance of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play J.B. on Broadway. The play is based on the Book of Job, which the students had been studying for one of their classes.
Shortly before 1 a.m., one of the chartered busses was coming to a stop at a traffic light on Rt. 1, just south of New Brunswick, when it was rear-ended by an empty oil and paint tanker truck traveling 35 miles per hour. The students, many of who were still awake and chatting amongst themselves, reacted in a frenzy.
Professor Ernest F. Sixta, one of the chaperones, had been sitting in the back of the bus talking with some of his students. Just after the bus was hit he shouted, “Don’t panic, don’t panic,” and tried move the frightened students toward the front of the bus. But the truck had struck the bus’s gas tank, which quickly exploded and engulfed the bus in flames.
Professor Sixta and nine students who were sitting nearby— Beverly E. Allen, Yolanda R. Benson, Jane Ann McCormack, Dorothy Pinchak, Nancy E. Raub, Pearl L. Wright, Arlene Ruth Mayer, Rae Lean Steinberg, and Judith Tettamanti—were killed almost instantly. Another student, Linda J. Mollov, was taken to a nearby hospital due to severe burns, and she too passed away.
Were it not for the heroics of the bus driver, Carmen Nini, many more people might have lost their lives. News reports indicate that Nini raced through the burning bus, pushing several dazed and frightened TSC students out before pushing open the vehicle’s emergency door. Among the people who made it off of the bus was Professor Sixta’s wife Helen, who worked in the College library and was serving as a chaperone.
Many of the students were treated at nearby hospitals for various injuries. One, Dorothy Weismantel, lay in critical condition for two weeks, but finally succumbed to her injuries on October 26, 1959. Another, Josephine Brancolina, suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of her body but survived. For more on her story, click here.
It was later determined that Roscoe Poe, the driver of the tanker truck, had numerous moving violations on his driving record. He plead no defense to a charge of causing death by motor vehicle, served one year in jail, and was fined $1,000. Maspeth Truck Leasing, which owned the vehicle that Poe was driving, was ordered to pay Brancolina $100,000.
Reports of the tragedy came as a shock to students, faculty, and staff at the College. As news of the event spread across campus that day, the college infirmary overflowed with students suffering from shock and hysteria. But the campus community banded together. The Tuesday after the crash, thousands gathered in Kendall Hall to pay tribute to the students and faculty member who were lost in the crash. Classes were canceled that day, so that all who wished to could pay their final respects. The crowd was so large that it flowed out onto the steps of Kendall. Edwin L. Martin, then president of the College, told those in attendance, “We are gathered together this afternoon to pay tribute to [those] who were so tragically taken from our group. Our full tribute has been, and will be, expressed in many ways. This assembly is only a symbol of our desire to honor these friends…. Our tribute will continue to be expressed throughout the days and years ahead as long as we are inspired by the memories of these friends and colleagues.”
A memorial fund was established in honor of Professor Sixta and the students who were killed, the proceeds of which support student scholarship at the College. The award is still given out to this day to a deserving student. Those who wish to contribute to it can contact the development office for more information.
To honor the memory of the 12 members of the College family who lost their lives in that tragic accident 50 years ago this month, we are reprinting each individual’s short biography, which appeared in the State Signal issue from October 15, 1959.
Professor Ernest F. Sixta
Sixta was a 40-year-old professor of history at the College and president of the Faculty Association at the time of the accident. He had been teaching at the College since 1952.
Born in Cedar Rapids, IA, Sixta received his BA in history from Iowa State Teachers College. He later earned a master’s degree and PhD from the State University of Iowa. From 1937 to 1942, Sixta taught public school in Iowa. From 1947 to 1950, he taught Western Civilization at the State University of Iowa.
His distinguished academic record afforded him a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of London from 1950 to 1952, where he pursued his course of study, Seventeenth Century English Literature. During this time he also taught American History at the Lycee Francais de Londre, London, England.
Beverly E. Allen
Allen was a junior elementary major from Newark. The previous summer, she had traveled throughout Europe with a number of college students on what was called The Hobo Tour.
The previous year, Allen had appeared as an aunt of Prince Albert in a college play about Queen Victoria. She also had a part in the college production of Teahouse of the August Moon during her freshman year. It was reported that Allen’s roommate, Yolanda Benson (who also lost her life in the accident), had once described Allen as an “artsy” type of person who enjoyed reading good literature and attending lectures, concerts, plays, and art exhibits.
During the fall 1959 semester, Allen was participating in her Junior Professional Experience at the now-closed Lanning Demonstration School. At the time of her passing, Allen was a disc jockey on the campus radio station and a member of McLees house council.
Benson, a juinor business education major, had been a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and lived in seven different European countries during the first 10 years of her life because of Nazi persecution. She came to the United State in 1948 and received her citizenship in 1955.
She attended high school in Freehold, and was a member of the National Honor Society and received a Merit Award. She served as secretary of Hillel and worked in the college admissions office during her freshman year at TSC. During her sophomore year of college, she won the Thomas J. Watson memorial scholarship of the International Business Machines on the basis of her outstanding academic record. A few weeks prior to the accident, Benson had been elected into Kappa Delta Pi, an education honor society, but had yet to be inducted.
“Yo-Yo,” as some of her friends called her, had worked as a secretary in New York City during the summer of 1959, earning a promotion prior to returning to campus for the fall semester.
Mayer was a freshman kindergarten-primary major from Verona, NJ. The 17-year-old had been an active member of her Jewish Community Center and Suburban Youth Council.
While in high school, Mayer was a member of the National Honors Society and Future Teachers of America. During that time she was also assistant editor of her school’s newspaper and served as her school’s delegate to the Columbia Press Conference.
Jane M. McCormack
McCormack had graduated from Middletown Township High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society, in 1958. The sophomore kindergarten-primary major was a violinist in her high school’s orchestra, and was active in her church. Due to her outstanding academic record, she had been awarded a college scholarship from the N.J. Commissioner of Education.
A graduate of West Orange High School, Mollov was majoring in elementary education at TSC. In high school, she had been elected to the National Honor Society, was vice-president of the New Jersey Student Education Association, a member of the debate team and Spanish club, and chief of staff for her school’s magazine. Although only a freshman, she had already begun to achieve recognition as a student leader through her activities in the College Student Education Association.
A business education major, Pinchak had graduated from Eastside High School in Paterson in 1958. The sophomore was particularly interested in youth group activities, and worked witht he Brownies and Girl Scouts while in high school. In college she took on leadership roles with local 4-H clubs.
Pinchak was a member of Nu Delta Chi sorority, and enjoyed literature and music.
A resident of North Arlington at the time of her death, Raub was a sophomore business education major who was involved in a number of activities on campus. She was active in Gamma Sigma sorority and an officer of the Student Education Association. She was also an editor of The Seal, the College yearbook.
A National Honor Society member in high school, Raub had won numerous awards in the field of business and had been awarded first prize for a paper she wrote on business education. She was also heavily involved in charity work.
A June 1959 graduate of Camden High School, Steinberg was a recipient of the D.A.R. Citizenship Award for her work while in high school. She was a member of the National Honor Society, Future Teachers of America, and student government.
In Camden, she held positions of leadership at the Jewish Community Center. In her short time at the College, Steinberg had shown an interest in campus affairs as a possible nomination as a Student Executive Board representative and as a member of the committee for the play Under Milk Wood, which was being presented on campus at the time of the accident.
Tettamanti, a sophomore business education major, was a native of Phillipsburg. In high school, Tettamanti was a member of the National Honor Society, Future Teachers of America, Glee Club, and the a cappella choir. She was the recipient of a scholarship awarded by the elementary school that she had attended.
At the College, Tettamanti was a member of Signma Sigma sorority.
Weismantel was a 1958 graduate of West Side High School in Newark, where she was active in numerous school and community organizations, including the Future Teachers Association, Junior Achievement, the Social Welfare Activities Club, and the youth groups of Sacred Heart Church. At TSC, Weismantel worked as a college switchboard operator and was active in the College Newman Club.
Weismantel, who survived the initial explosion but was badly burned in the crash, was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital. She lay in critical condition for 17 days before passing away on October 26, 1959.
Wright graduated from Salem High School in 1958. She was a participant in the 4-H Club and various student government organizations in her high school, and her record of high academic achievement had earned her a scholarship awarded by the State Commissioner of Education. The sophomore business major was extremely active in her church.
Posted on October 28, 2009