'It just didn't stop': 34-year-old mother killed in N.J. commuter train crash
Victim ID'd as 34-year-old Brazilian-American woman, more than 100 injured
A rush hour commuter train crashed through a barrier at the busy Hoboken, N.J. station and lurched across the waiting area Thursday morning, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others in a grisly wreck that renewed questions about whether long-delayed automated safety technology could have prevented tragedy.
People pulled chunks of concrete off pinned and bleeding victims, passengers kicked out windows and crawled to safety and cries and screams could be heard in the wreckage as emergency workers rushed to reach the injured in the tangle of twisted metal and dangling wires just across the Hudson River from New York City.
The New Jersey Transit train ran off the end of the track as it was pulling in around 8:45 a.m., smashing through a concrete-and-steel bumper. As it ground to a halt in the waiting area, it knocked out pillars, collapsing a section of the roof.
"The train didn't stop. It just didn't stop," said Tom Spina, who was in the terminal and rushed to try to help the victims.
Ross Bauer was sitting in the third or fourth car when the train entered the historic 109-year-old station, a bustling hub for commuters heading to New York.
"All of a sudden, there was an abrupt stop and a big jolt that threw people out of their seats. The lights went out, and we heard a loud crashing noise like an explosion" as the roof fell, he said. "I heard panicked screams, and everyone was stunned."
The engineer, Thomas Gallagher, was pulled from the mangled first car and was hospitalized, but officials said he had been released by evening. He was co-operating with investigators, Gov. Chris Christie said.
"The train came in at much too high rate of speed, and the question is: 'Why is that?"' Christie said.
A woman standing on the train platform — Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken, a former employee in the legal department of the business software company SAP in Brazil — was killed by debris, and 108 others were injured, mostly on the train, Christie said. Scores were hospitalized, some with serious injuries including broken bones.
De Kroon had just hurriedly dropped her daughter off at daycare before heading to the terminal.
"We had a good talk for like a minute," said daycare director Karlos Magner. "And she said she was in a rush."
Another daycare employee, Maria Sharp, said de Kroon, who had recently moved to the United States from Brazil with her husband and daughter, was very involved, always wanting to know how her daughter was growing academically.
"You just saw a smile on her face every time she came to pick up her daughter," Sharp said, "and that's what I keep seeing."
Positive train control a major issue
Some witnesses said they didn't hear or feel the brakes being applied before the crash. Authorities would not estimate how fast the train was going. But the speed limit heading into the station is 16 kph.
The National Transportation Safety Board planned to pull one of the black-box event recorders from the locomotive at the back of the train. The device contains information on the train's speed and braking.
But it wasn't safe enough yet for investigators to extract the second recorder from the engineer's compartment because of the collapsed roof and the possibility of asbestos in the old building, NTSB vice chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said.
Gallagher, the engineer, has worked for NJ Transit for 29 years, and a union roster shows he started as an engineer about 18 years ago. Neighbours describe Gallagher and his family as good people.
Investigators will examine the engineer's performance and the condition of the train, track and signals, among other things, she said. They also plan to look into whether positive train control — a system designed to prevent accidents by overriding the engineer and automatically slowing or stopping trains that are going too fast — could have helped.
None of NJ Transit's trains is fully equipped with positive train control, which relies on radio and GPS signals to monitor trains' position and speed.
The NTSB has been pressing for some version of the technology for at least 40 years, and the industry is under government orders to install it, but regulators have repeatedly extended the deadline at railroads' request. The target date is now the end of 2018.
Over the past 20 years, the NTSB has listed the lack of positive train control as a contributing factor in 25 crashes. Those include the Amtrak wreck last year in Philadelphia in which a speeding train ran off the rails along a curve. Eight people were killed.
Even without positive train control, there are still safeguards in place at the Hoboken terminal.
NJ Transit trains going into Hoboken have an in-cab system that is designed to alert engineers and stop locomotives when they go over 20 mph, according to an NJ Transit engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the accident.
Trains like the one in Thursday's crash also are equipped with an alerter system — a sort of dead man's device — that sounds a loud alarm and eventually stops the train if the engineer goes 15 to 20 seconds without touching the controls.
But it was unclear whether those mechanisms kicked in or would have made a difference if they had.
The Hoboken terminal handles more than 50,000 train and bus riders daily, many of them headed into New York. After arriving at Hoboken, the commuters take ferries or PATH commuter trains across the river to the city.
Passengers said the train, which set out from Spring Valley, N.Y., was crowded, with standing room only in the typically popular first few cars, but authorities had no immediate estimate of how many were aboard.
More than 100,000 people use NJ Transit trains to commute from New Jersey into New York every day. With the Hoboken station still closed as of Thursday evening, NJ Transit trains out of Penn Station in Manhattan were crowded with commuters forced to find a detour around Hoboken.
With files from CBC News and Reuters