Investigators dig for clues into fatal New Jersey train crash

September 30, 2016 3:35 AM EDT

Onlookers view a New Jersey Transit train that derailed and crashed through the station in Hoboken, New Jersey. Courtesy of David Richman via REUTERS

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By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investigators spoke with what they called "cooperative" crew members and sent a black box recorder to the manufacturer for downloading on Friday in the search for clues as to why a New Jersey commuter train failed to stop on Thursday and smashed into the terminal.

The morning rush hour crash killed a 34-year-old woman on the platform and injured more than 100 people in Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from New York City, toppling support columns in the early 20th century building.

Witnesses described a scene of horror and chaos as the train slammed through the barrier, jumped off the tracks and skidded across the station concourse.

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said they retrieved one event recorder from the locomotive in the rear of the train on Thursday night but were unable to download its information, so they sent it to the manufacturer under board supervision on Friday to capture the data.

"Our investigation is progressing and all our teams are working around the clock," NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr told reporters.

"The crew members have been very cooperative and we appreciate that. We hope to give you some information from the interviews tomorrow," Dinh-Zarr said.

The other event recorder and the forward-facing image recorder were still stuck in the twisted wreckage as investigators determined it unsafe to enter any of the three train cars until debris could be cleared, which may take another day or two.

The event recorder data would help investigators determine the precise speed of the train as it approached the terminal.

Witnesses and officials said the train came into the station too fast and never slowed, but it was unclear why.

The on-site investigation was expected to last seven to 10 days, Dinh-Zarr said. Final reports of accident investigations typically take months.

Train service remained suspended in and out of the Hoboken terminal, one of the busiest transit hubs in the New York area, accommodating some 60,000 people a day.


It was too early to say whether an anti-collision system known as positive train control (PTC) could have prevented the crash, officials said. PTC is designed to halt a train if the driver misses a stop signal, and advocates say it helps to address human error. None of the New Jersey Transit system's trains are equipped with PTC.

Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, said PTC is most effective at higher speeds out on open track, adding it is far from clear it could have made a difference in Hoboken. He said other factors, such as the alertness of the locomotive engineer, or driver, could turn out to be more important.

Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, who toured the site on Thursday, again on Friday called for new safety measures on commuter rail systems including more federal funding for PTC. "Commuters need to feel safe in our trains and on our tracks," he said in a statement.

New Jersey lawmakers and Governor Chris Christie on Friday struck a $16 billion deal to fund stalled state transportation projects for the next eight years by hiking the gasoline tax by 23 cents a gallon.

But it was unclear how much of that money would be dedicated to train safety. The so-called Transportation Trust Fund pays for a variety of road, bridge and transit projects.

Investigators had spoken to the three-person crew but had yet to conduct a detailed interview with the engineer, Thomas Gallagher, because he was injured in the crash, said Dinh-Zarr.

Blood and urine samples were taken for drug and alcohol screening.

Gallagher, a 29-year veteran of the railway who is married with two daughters, has a deep love for driving trains, said Penny Jones, 72, one of his neighbors in suburban New Jersey.

"He wanted to be a train engineer since he was very, very young," she said by phone, adding that she was heartbroken for what Gallagher went through even as the cause of the crash remained undetermined.

"No matter what, this is something they'll have to deal with the rest of their lives," she said, noting police officers were stationed outside the Gallagher house.

(Additional reporting by David Ingram, Brendan O'Brien and Ian Simpson; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Alan Crosby; Editing by Bill Rigby)

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