Federal investigators are in New York to determine why a Manhattan-bound Metro-North passenger train spun out of control early Sunday in the Bronx, killing four people and propelling dozens of passengers out of their seats as Thanksgiving crowds headed home on one of the busiest travel days of the year, authorities said.
A “full team” of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived from Washington on the scene at 12:30 p.m. to find seven cars and the locomotive derailed, NTSB representative Earl Weener said in an evening news conference near the crash site — along the Harlem River and just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station — while helicopters circled above.
At least 63 people were injured, 11 of them listed in critical condition. The crash is thought to be the deadliest train wreck in New York City since 1991, when five people were killed and more than 150 were injured in a subway train derailment in Lower Manhattan, authorities said.
Weener, speaking next to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), said several federal teams — including experts on tracks, signaling and breaking — would be investigating for a week to 10 days.
“Our mission is to understand not just what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Weener said.
In response to media questions about reports that the train conductor said the brakes had failed and that the train was being pushed by a locomotive, making it harder to stop, Weener said: “We don’t know at this point. We will be looking at it.”
Investigators will be looking at the train’s speed and had already recovered the data recorder, he said. Several passengers told the news media that the train appeared to be going too fast around the curve when it skidded off the tracks and sent some passengers flying into the air, tumbling over one another.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority identified the victims 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 them were found outside the train and one was inside, authorities said. Autopsies are scheduled for Monday.
Cuomo said the train operator was being treated for injuries and was talking with officials.
“This is an opportunity for the NTSB to review the operation,” Cuomo said. “As I said before, safety is job one. And if there is a lesson to learn, we want to make sure we learn it. It’s a reminder to all of us that life is a precious gift and take everyday as that.”
Many passengers told reporters they were sleeping or listening to music on Train 8808, which departed at 5:54 a.m. from Poughkeepsie and was due to arrive at Grand Central Terminal at 7:43 a.m.
They said they experienced a harrowing awakening after they heard screeching metal. One car flipped down a riverbank, inches from where the Harlem River meets the Hudson. New York Police Department scuba divers, along with helicopter crews and trained dogs, searched for survivors.
Many passengers were coming home from Thanksgiving weekends. Others were on their way to work, including an injured female New York City police officer in her 20s.
Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano told reporters that there were about 100 people on the train, adding that the toll would have been worse if the accident had occurred later on the busy travel day or during the workweek. “On a workday, fully occupied, it would have been a tremendous disaster,” he said.
At the White House, President Obama said his “thoughts and prayers” went out to the injured and the loved ones of those killed.
This is the train service’s second passenger-train derailment in six months, during a year that has seen a string of safety problems.
The troubles for the commuter train system began May 17, when an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was hit by a westbound train in a crash that injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. Eleven days later, track foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a train in West Haven, Conn. It was the first time in more than four years that a Metro-North worker had been fatally struck by a train.
In an “urgent safety recommendation,” the NTSB said that a trainee rail-traffic controller had opened a section of track without the proper clearance.
This month, Metro-North’s chief engineer, Robert Puciloski, told NTSB investigators that the railroad is “behind in several areas,” including a five-year maintenance schedule, which has not been conducted in the area of the Bridgeport derailment since 2005.
“It would appear the train was clearly going too fast on the curve,” said City Council member Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx). “I take this train every morning, and they always slow on this curve. On first look, it appears the operator was going way too fast.”
Television images showed passengers emerging from the train bleeding and scratched.
Michael Keaveney, 22, a security worker who lives in a co-op apartment building overlooking the crash site, said he could not believe what he saw.
“I was dead asleep and heard a loud boom,” said Keaveney, who was reached by phone. “I could see four cars flipped over. It was shocking. My mother called 911 and I got dressed and ran down to see if I could help, but firefighters were already there.”
In July, a CSX freight train hauling trash derailed in the same area because of a track issue, but no one was injured. Keaveney said he witnessed the train flip over in that accident. “It makes me grateful that I have a car,” he said.
Joel Zaritsky of Poughkeepsie awoke early to catch the 5:54 a.m. train so he could attend a dental convention in New York. He was asleep when he was thrown to the other side of the train.
“There was smoke everywhere and debris,” he said, showing a crowd of media his bloody right hand. “I still can’t believe it. I’m very happy to be alive.”