December 2, 2013 in Nation/World

New York commuter train crash kills 4, injures dozens

Verena Dobnik And Deepti Hajela Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx borough of New York on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

NEW YORK – A New York City commuter train rounding a riverside curve derailed Sunday, killing four people and injuring more than 60 in a crash that threw some riders from toppling cars and swiftly raised questions about whether excessive speed, mechanical problems or human error could have played a role.

Some of the roughly 150 passengers on the early morning Metro-North train from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan were jolted from sleep around 7:20 a.m. to screams and the frightening sensation of their compartment rolling over on a bend in the Bronx where the Hudson and Harlem rivers meet. When the motion stopped, all seven cars and the locomotive had lurched off the rails, and the lead car was only inches from the water. It was the latest accident in a troubled year for the nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad, which had never experienced a passenger death in an accident in its 31-year history.

Joel Zaritsky was dozing as he traveled to a dental convention aboard the train. He woke up to feel his car overturning several times.

“Then I saw the gravel coming at me, and I heard people screaming,” he told the Associated Press, holding his bloody right hand. “There was smoke everywhere and debris. People were thrown to the other side of the train.”

In their efforts to find passengers, rescuers shattered windows, searched nearby woods and waters and used pneumatic jacks and air bags to peer under wreckage. Crews planned to bring in cranes during the night to right the overturned cars on the slight chance anyone might still be underneath, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said.

The agency was just beginning its search into what caused the derailment, and Weener said investigators had not yet spoken to the train conductor, who was among the injured.

Meanwhile, thousands of people braced for a complicated commute this morning, with shuttle buses ferrying passengers to another line.

Investigators were due to examine factors ranging from the track condition to the crew’s performance. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the track did not appear to be faulty, leaving speed as a possible culprit for the crash. The speed limit on the curve is 30 mph, compared with 70 mph in the area approaching it, Weener said.

Authorities did not yet know how fast the train was traveling but had found a data recorder, he said.

One passenger, Frank Tatulli, told WABC-TV that the train appeared to be going “a lot faster” than usual as it approached the sharp curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station.

Nearby residents awoke to a building-shaking boom. Angel Gonzalez was in bed in his high-rise apartment overlooking the rail curve when he heard the roar.

“I thought it was a plane that crashed,” he said.

Within minutes, dozens of emergency crews arrived and carried passengers away on stretchers, some wearing neck braces. Others, bloodied and scratched, held ice packs to their heads.

The MTA identified the victims Sunday as Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh; James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose; and Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens.

Three of the dead were found outside the train, and one was found inside, authorities said. Autopsies were scheduled for today, the New York City medical examiner’s office said.

Eleven of the injured were believed to be critically wounded and another six seriously hurt, according to the Fire Department. After visiting an area hospital Sunday evening, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that the 11 who originally were critical no longer appear to have life-threatening injuries.

As deadly as the derailment was, the toll could have been far greater had it happened on a weekday, or had the lead car plunged into the water instead of nearing it. The train was about half-full at the time of the crash, rail officials said.

“On a workday, fully occupied, it would have been a tremendous disaster,” New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Joseph Cassano told reporters at the scene. The affected line, called the Hudson line, carries about 18,000 people on an average weekday morning.

For decades, the NTSB has been urging railroads to install technology that can stop derailing caused by excessive speed, along with other problems.

A rail-safety law passed by Congress in 2008 gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the systems, known as positive train control. Aimed at preventing human error – the cause of about 40 percent of train accidents – it can also prevent trains from colliding, entering tracks undergoing maintenance or going the wrong way because of a switching mistake.

But the systems are expensive and complicated. Railroads are trying to push back the installation deadline another five to seven years.

Sunday’s accident came six months after an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was struck by a westbound train. The crash injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. In July, a freight train full of garbage derailed on the same Metro-North line near the site of Sunday’s wreckage.

“Safety is clearly a problem on this stretch of track,” state Sen. Jeff Klein, who represents the nearby area, said Sunday.

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