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Engineer in N.J. Train Crash Heavily Medicated, Not Yet Interviewed; Event Recorder Recovered

Breaking news update, published at 4:17 a.m. PT

Investigators have retrieved an event recorder from the passenger train that crashed Thursday in Hoboken, New Jersey, and information from the device will be downloaded on Friday morning, a US official with direct knowledge of the probe said.

First responders are seen on the scene of a train crash at New Jersey Transit's rail station in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sept. 29, 2016. (Credit: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

First responders are seen on the scene of a train crash at New Jersey Transit’s rail station in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sept. 29, 2016. (Credit: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Also, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have been in contact with the train’s engineer, but they have not interviewed him yet because he was heavily medicated, the official said.

Original story, published at 11:05 p.m. PT

It happened without warning, without time for passengers to realize they were barreling headlong into a deadly tragedy, without time for commuters standing on the station platform to flee.

About 8:45 a.m. Thursday, a New Jersey commuter train packed with passengers and traveling way too fast crashed into Hoboken Terminal, killing a woman waiting on the platform. It injured more than 100 others.

‘Next thing I know, I’m on the floor’

The train overran its stopping point, slammed into a bumper block, went airborne and rammed through a passenger concourse at the terminal, one of the busiest transit hubs in the New York area.

Bhagyesh Shah, who rode in the front car on his way to work, said the train didn’t appear to slow as it entered the station.

“The next thing I know, I’m on the floor. We are plowing through something … and when the train came to a stop, I could see the parts of the roof on the first car and some of the debris next to me,” Shah said.

Images posted on social media showed part of the station’s roof had collapsed. Witnesses described people helping bloodied passengers, some trapped by debris, from the packed front car.

One killed, 114 injured

Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken, died after she was struck by debris while standing on the platform, Gov. Chris Christie said.

An additional 114 people were injured, he said.

The engineer, identified as Thomas Gallagher, 48, was treated and released from a hospital. He was cooperating with law enforcement officials, Christie said.

Gallagher has worked for the New Jersey Transit for 29 years.

The crash comes five years after more than 30 people were injured when a train overran its stop at the same station.

End of a route

The train was at the end of a 17-stop route that had started more than an hour earlier in Spring Valley, New York. The Hoboken hub primarily serves the Lower Manhattan commuter market.

A New Jersey Transit worker at the station said he heard an explosion-like sound as the lead car, coming into the station fast, slammed into the bumper block, a device meant to halt trains that pass their stops.

“It went up and over the bumper block, through the depot … and came to rest at the wall by the waiting room,” worker Mike Larson said.

“It was going considerably faster than it should have normally been.”

Roof crashed down on seats

Half of the first car was crumpled, and the roof crushed down to the seats, Larson said. The train should have stopped 10 to 20 feet before the bumper block, he said.

Some federal lawmakers said positive train control (PTC) might have helped in this situation. The system combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding.

Part of the focus of the investigation will be on PTC and whether it could have prevented the crash, said Dinh-Zarr of the National Transportation Safety Board.

New Jersey Transit has not yet installed PTC, although it has an older safety system. Congress originally required the newer safety system to be installed by the end of 2015, but extended the deadline to the end of 2018.

Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cautioned people to wait until investigations are completed before concluding PTC would have prevented this incident.

“That’s speculation that can only be based upon the cause of the accident, and until we know the cause of the accident we’re not going to be able to know what steps we can take in the future to avoid an accident like this,” Christie said.

‘I guess it didn’t slow down’

Passenger Leon Offengenden said he was in one of the cars behind the lead car when the crash happened.

“The front car is essentially off the rails … into the building of the station, with the roof sort of collapsed around it,” he said.

“The first car was just demolished. The train looked like it went through the stop,” Offengenden said. “The first car looked like it catapulted onto the platform into the building. The roof collapsed. There was wire and water (and) everything.

“The lights went out and a few people screamed (when the crash happened).”

He said at first, he had no idea what was going on.

“I was sitting, but I couldn’t see the window. I didn’t notice that the train was going at an accelerated pace. It was just going,” Offengenden said.

“Now, looking back, I guess it didn’t slow down. It definitely didn’t slow down. There (were) no brakes. All of a sudden, it just crashed. Something happened obviously. … It’s the same feeling as when you get in a car crash.”

He said he left the train and “saw a man who had blood just running down his arm. He was wearing a suit and blood was just gushing.”

Rail service suspended

The NTSB believes it can recover one of the train’s two event recorders but it will take some time to get to one in the front car because the building is too dangerous to go into. The locomotive is outside the station, Dinh-Zarr said.

Contractors will have to remove debris from the top of the train before investigators can get into the passenger cars, she said.

New Jersey Transit train service is suspended indefinitely, until the damage can be assessed and repaired. NJ Transit posted a customer notice on its website advising commuters of their Friday options.

Safety measures

State officials have taken recent steps to improve rail safety.

In August, Christie signed a bill prohibiting an engineer from operating a New Jersey Transit train if his or her driving privileges are suspended or revoked due to a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or a related offense.

The law came after an engineer was found to have lost his license for 10 years due to DUI convictions.


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