“The Bridge Is Falling”: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge’s Deadly Stampede

"Removing the bodies of the killed and injured." Drawing by a staff artist at Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

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    Within a week of the Brooklyn Bridge’s opening, a rumor it was going to collapse incited a deadly stampede.

    The bridge opened to much fanfare on May 24, 1883, and on May 30, during Memorial Day weekend, the promenade was bustling with thousands of holiday-weekend sightseers.

    The tragedy that followed was prompted by a single misstep: A middle-aged woman tripped and fell down the wooden stairs leading off the bridge on the Manhattan approach, inspiring another woman to scream, “The bridge is falling,” according to one Missouri newspaper’s account of the incident at the time.

    Brooklyn Bridge Death

    “The desperate struggle for life.” Drawing by a staff artist at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

    Panicked, pedestrians rushed to exit the bridge, bottlenecking at the western entrance and knocking those at the the top of the steps into a heap. “In a moment the whole stairway was packed with dead and dying men, women and children piled upon another in a writhing, struggling mass,” reads a New York Times account of the crush titled “Dead on the New Bridge.”

    The death toll reached 12 in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. More than 35 people were injured.

    Pickpockets took advantage of the moment, adding to the panic, as various garments fell to the street below. A bridge employee managed to rip away a section of the iron fence that separated the promenade from the railroad bed, allowing for a larger exit path.

    An hour after the deadly event, only the missing section of the fence remained as evidence of the tragedy.

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