January 30, 1934
Tuesday, January 30, 1934, is one of the most tragic dates in the history of the Lawrence Township firefighting community. Late that evening, an engine from Slackwood Fire Co. responding to a brush fire was involved in a horrible collision with a tractor-trailer. Four volunteer firefighters were killed almost instantly and a fifth Slackwood man died of his injuries several days later. The Trenton Evening Times published this report on the accident on Wednesday, January 31, 1934:
“…The collision was between the Slackwood combination fire truck and hose cart and a truck-trailer. It occurred at the intersection of the Brunswick Pike and Cherry Tree Lane. George H. Combs, 62, of 715 Valley Forge Avenue, and Howard Grant, 27, of 19 Graf Avenue, were killed outright less than a minute after the fire truck pulled out of the engine house on Slack Avenue, about 300 yards from the scene of the 11 p.m. tragedy. Frederick Russell Turner, 23, of 1701 Brunswick Avenue, and Walter Oliver Penrod, 20, of 1847 Brunswick Avenue, died a few hours after the crash in McKinley Hospital. John Morton, 20, of 127 Slack Avenue, is in Mercer Hospital, suffering fractures of both legs and a possible fracture of the skull. He was trapped beneath the overturned body of the truck that struck the fire engine. George Hancock, 21, of 844 Plum Street, is in McKinley Hospital, suffering possible internal injuries, a possible fracture of the leg and lacerations about the face. Wesley Gromikowski, 23, of 722 Trumbull Avenue, also is in McKinley Hospital, his face and body severely lacerated.
“The victims, all members of the Slackwood Fire Co., were at fire headquarters when the siren sounded an alarm of fire. Ironically, the blaze was merely a small grass fire, which burned itself out as the men summoned to extinguish it lay sprawled on the super-highway. As the fire engine swept out across the pike in second gear, a heavy truck-trailer coming from the direction of Trenton towards New Brunswick caught the engine broadside at the entrance to Cherry Tree Lane. With a splintering roar that was heard for more than a mile distant, the two vehicles collided. Morton was driving the fire engine, with two companions in the front seat beside him. The other men clung to the handrails on the back and sides of the vehicle. At the impact, all were hurled to the road, several of them thrown high. As Morton struck the concrete roadbed, the trailer of the truck toppled over upon him. The driver of the truck, Joseph Gross of Philadelphia, clung to the wheel of his vehicle and was uninjured.
“The impact was so great that the fire truck spun around three times, coming to a halt within four feet of where Joseph Smith was flagging traffic. Smith, of Cherry Tree Lane, was sent out in advance of the fire engine to flag traffic. He did not swing a red lantern to warn approaching traffic but motioned with his arms in the hope of clearing the way. Smith stood horror-stricken as the victims fell all about the highway. As the fire engine halted its mad plunge from the impact, Smith rushed forward and picked up one of the victims. The man was already dead. Smith handed the body to a spectator and rushed to the overturned truck-trailer, where agonized screams marked the spot where Morton lay trapped beneath the heavy body. Combs lay dead under the truck.
“Motorists and residents of the village flocked to the scene and swiftly removed the victims. Gross’ truck, consisting of a cab with a large box-shaped trailer coupled to it, turned over at the instant of impact and spilled its cargo of radios and merchandise to the road. McKinley Hospital sent an ambulance but all victims had been removed before its arrival. Combs and Grant, who was the first assistant chief of the company, were pronounced dead upon arrival at McKinley Hospital. Physicians said they had been killed instantly. James Smith, of 743 Trumbull Avenue, chief of the Slackwood Fire Co., and Harry Robbins, of the same address, first learned of the tragedy several hours later when Lawrence Township police awakened them…”
Over the course of the next several days, the Trenton Evening Times published updates on the investigation into the collision. The driver of the tractor-trailer was arrested and charged with manslaughter while a Mercer County grand jury was convened to sift through the details of the crash in an attempt to assign blame. In a story published in the newspaper on Friday, February 2, 1934, it was reported that:
“…Clashing versions of the mishap continue to arise. According to Hancock, who sat beside the driver of the fire apparatus, the truck-trailer was practically at Valley Forge Avenue, a block away from Slack Avenue, when the engine started across the highway. However, Gross, the truck driver, told county authorities that he was about 25 feet from the fire engine when it appeared in his path and he was powerless to avoid the crash. Hancock also stated that the fire engine had been running in low gear from the firehouse and had just been shifted into second, with the engine sputtering and pulling irregularly at the time it reached the crossing. Shocked by the loss of life and injuries to others, officials will ask the State Highway Commission to assist in installing a fire alarm signal light on the Brunswick Pike. When an alarm is received, the warning to traffic would flash and all vehicles come to a halt until apparatus had passed the intersection. Frank Carr, Lawrence committeeman, said such action should have been taken long ago…”
The Trenton Evening Times reported on Saturday, February 3, 1934, that “…more than 300 volunteer firemen from all parts of the county, along with Lawrence Township officials, visited the homes of the victims last night, with the Rev. Glenn Harris of Slackwood Chapel conducting services. The mourners assembled at the township firehouse and formed a two-by-two procession more than two blocks long. Impressive rites are planned for the funerals today.” Two of the survivors, Hancock and Gromikowski, slowly recovered from their injuries, but the driver of the engine, Morton, died in the hospital on Sunday, February 4, 1934
August 31, 1936
It was about 6 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 31, 1936, when members of the Slackwood Volunteer Fire Co. were alerted to a fire in the home of Walton Oakerson at 719 Trumbull Ave.
Rathbone, who worked the night shift at Mason’s Garage, left his job at the service station on Brunswick Pike (now Business Route 1) and took a position at the corner of Brunswick Pike and Slack Avenue.
There were no traffic lights at that intersection back then. Whenever there was a fire call that required the fire engines to cross Brunswick Pike, a member of the fire company would step out into the roadway in advance of the engines to stop oncoming traffic.
It was at that same intersection late on Jan. 30, 1934, that five Slackwood Fire Co. volunteers were fatally injured when their fire engine, while attempting to cross Brunswick Pike to respond to a fire, was struck by a truck.
Rathbone, 60, “began to halt traffic on the pike by means of a red lantern and a police whistle,” an account in the Aug. 31, 1936, edition of the Trenton Evening Times read.
George Langford, a 21-year-old resident of Atlantic City, was driving south along Brunswick Pike and did not see the red light of Rathbone’s lantern until it was too late to stop. Langford’s car struck Rathbone, crushing his left leg and causing numerous head and internal injuries.
Volunteers from Slackwood Fire Co., aided by members of the Lawrence Volunteer Fire Association (now known as Lawrence Road Fire Co.), battled the blaze while their brother firefighter Rathbone, in critical condition, was rushed to McKinley Hospital (now Capital Health Regional Medical Center) in Trenton.
Rathbone underwent multiple blood transfusions and had his left leg amputated above the knee as doctors struggled to save his life. Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died in the hospital on Sept. 6, 1936. His funeral was held a few days later from his home at 759 Puritan Ave. He was survived by his wife, Cecilia Woodhead Rathbone. The couple had no children.
Langford was charged by police with reckless driving and “atrocious assault and battery with an automobile.”
On the reckless driving charge, according to a newspaper account, Langford was fine $100 and sentenced to serve 30 days in the Mercer County workhouse. He also had his driver’s license revoked for one year. Langford was arraigned on the assault charge, however it is unclear whether he was ever put on trial.
December 21, 1986
The seventh Slackwood volunteer to die in the line of duty was fire police Capt. Walter A. “Luke” Lukaszewski.
Lukaszewski, 72, suffered a fatal heart attack while directing traffic on Route 206 during a blaze that badly damaged part of the Lawrence Road Fire Co. firehouse on Dec. 21, 1986.