Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have run into a series of hurdles this weekend in their probe of Thursday’s commuter train crash in Hoboken, N.J. that left a woman dead and more than 100 people injured.
Officials said Sunday they are having trouble determining the speed of the train, because an event recorder recovered from a locomotive was not working at the time of the crash. In addition, the engineer, Thomas Gallagher, 48, has no memory of the crash — only the events leading up to it.
He woke up on the floor of the train’s cab, NTSB vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a Sunday news conference.
The recovered “black box,” which would have contained speed and braking information critical to the investigation, was an older model built in 1995, Dinh-Zarr said. Investigators are hopeful they can obtain information from the train’s other event recorder – likely a newer build — which is in the leading car. But investigators are still unable to access that car because it is buried in debris from the crash, which contractors are still working to remove.
The crash caused the building’s canopy to partially collapse, piercing the top of the leading car. The structure, composed of massive steel I-beams, impeded investigators’ access to the controlling car. Dinh-Zarr compared securing the site to a larger-than-life version of the game “Pick-up sticks.”
“If you pull out one piece, it affects the integrity of all the other pieces,” she said.
Dinh-Zarr said Gallagher had been working as a qualified engineer since 2000. He told investigators he remembered the train coasting into the terminal at about 10 mph. Dinh-Zarr said he blew the horn, checked his speedometer and started ringing a bell to signal his approach. He peered down at his watch and noticed the train was about six minutes late as it pulled into Hoboken, Dinh-Zarr said. But those are the last of his memories relating to the crash.
Investigators also interviewed the train’s conductor, who did not recall anything unusual about the engineer’s behavior that morning, or the train’s speed as it approached the station. Because the train was running at one car shorter than its usual configuration, there was significant crowding, and the conductor was unable to collect fares.
Dinh-Zarr said the signals on the approach to the station were in working order. In addition, the train was operating normally on the trip, Gallagher told investigators.
Dinh-Zarr said a team was also sorting and recording videos of the crash, but “unfortunately,” the footage obtained so far contained no information pertinent to the investigation. If data from the second event recorder is unable to be downloaded, the NTSB said it can determine the speed through other means — such as using the footage to determine how fast the train passed landmarks along the way.
“We’ll just hope that the front (recorder) is working,” Dinh-Zarr said.