Investigators delve into mystery of Hoboken’s rush hour train crash

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A derailed New Jersey Transit train is seen under a collapsed roof after it derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken, New Jersey, U.S. September 29, 2016.    REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTSQ24N

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Investigators in Northern New Jersey have a big question to ponder tonight: Why did a commuter train smash into a station in the midst of rush hour?

For now, the answer is anything but clear.

It was 8:45 this morning, when a New Jersey transit train came barreling into Hoboken without slowing down. A passenger in the first car said there’d been no hint of anything wrong.

JAMIE WEATHERHEAD-SAUL, Rain Passenger: There wasn’t even a screeching, like it was halting. It just kept going. Maybe there was some kind of, like, braking involved, because the lights went off and people started screaming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The speeding railcars crashed through a barrier and into the outer wall of the terminal waiting room, crushing the front of the train and collapsing part of the ceiling.

POLICE SCANNER AUDIO: We have a train that’s into the train station at Hoboken terminal. We are going to need multiple EMS for multiple injuries.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Police and emergency workers rushed to the station, a commuter hub just outside New York that handles 50,000 passengers every day. Bystanders jumped in to help people pinned under mangled steel and concrete.

MIKE LARSON, New Jersey Transit Employee: The second half of the first car was completely destroyed, to where they were crawling on their hands and knees. And we were trying to get as many people out. I assisted in maybe three or four people getting out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The lone fatality was a woman on the platform killed by the falling debris.

WILLIAM BLAINE, Engineer: They were pulling people out. People were jumping out, cuts and bruises, and — but I didn’t realize, when I ran, I stepped over a body. It was a dead woman.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dozens were sent to area hospitals. Three were in critical condition, including the train’s conductor. Many more made it out with minor injuries.

Hours later, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo toured the scene. Christie said it appeared to be an accident, but key questions remain.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-N.J.): What we know is that the train came in at much too high a rate of speed, and the question is, why is that?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The National Transportation Safety Board has now opened an investigation. And New Jersey transit’s terminal at Hoboken is closed. Other parts of the station have reopened.

A short time ago, officials announced that the train’s engineer has been released from the hospital, and they plan to interview him soon.

We’re joined now by Brenda Flanagan of NJTV News, part of our public broadcasting family.

Brenda, you have been there reporting all day. What is the scene like now?

BRENDA FLANAGAN, NJTV News: Well, right now, you can see that the building is still surrounded by police vehicles and command centers.

The National Transportation Safety Board just held a briefing in which they told us that the train was equipped with outward-facing cameras. Obviously, they’re going to be looking at those tapes. They’re also going to be pulling the black box tonight.

As the train station remains closed, they will be looking for issues like operator error, mechanical issues, signal problems, track issues. Now, they will not determine the cause of this accident today or on the scene. It’s going to take seven to 10 days before they’re able to come up with possibly a reason for this catastrophe — Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brenda, it’s almost surprising that it’s as few people were injured, considering what a busy transit hub this is in the New York area and that it happened during rush hour, when trains are usually packed.

BRENDA FLANAGAN: Absolutely.

This was — I know it’s a cliche, but it’s like the perfect storm, when you had so many wrong things. You had all of these people jampacked. It was a standing-room-only type of commuter train coming in at 8:45 in the morning, everybody heading into downtown Manhattan, to the ferries, to the PATH.

The fact that only one person was killed in this accident is amazing. The Transportation Safety Board is going to be looking at this tonight, but positive train control is another issue that was raised. Governor Christie was asked whether or not that might have slowed the train down. New Jersey Transit has no positive train control apparatus on any of its tracks or facilities.

Now, Senators Menendez and Booker of New Jersey held a news conference this afternoon. They said they are alarmed about the lack of security and the lack of safety and that they are going to be looking into this seriously, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell us also a little about all the civilians that actually responded because of the structural threat right after the crash.

BRENDA FLANAGAN: That was amazing.

In this area, you know, we always have in the back of our minds, because of 9/11, this could be a terror attack. And, as you well know, New Jersey and New York has been the scene of bombings that have been linked to a possible terror threat just a week-and-a-half ago.

Now, be that as it may, people who are in the terminal when there was this huge boom, they said the building shook, the lights flickered, and several people ran toward the source of the boom. They got to the scene, they helped remove some of the passengers from the area.

Looking up, seeing that that ceiling just might collapse, they said, it’s too dangerous, we have to help move these people out of the way. One man actually took the shirt off his back to fold it around some of the victims. He said they were shaking because they were cold and scared and in pain.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Brenda Flanagan joining us from the scene in Hoboken from NJTV News, thanks so much.

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