New York (AFP) – U.S. experts on Monday were probing how and why a New York City commuter train derailed over the holiday weekend, killing four passengers, injuring more than 60 others, and nearly plunging into a freezing river.
The train may have been speeding when it veered off the rails in the Bronx borough at around 7:20 am Sunday as it headed south to Grand Central Station in Manhattan.
The New York Fire Department said four people were killed, 11 others seriously hurt, and another 56 suffered minor injuries.
Some passengers were “impaled” by debris as train cars flew into the air, officials said, while others had to be cut free from tangled metal.
“People were screaming,” Joel Zaritsky told The New York Times. “I found myself thrown to the other side of the train.”
Many survivors had broken limbs or injuries to their heads or necks. Some were led away with bloodied faces.
“As the cars skidded along the dirt, the windows broke out, the doors opened and they were picking up stones, rock, dirt, tree limbs were flying through the cars,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described Monday on broadcaster CNN.
Investigators combed the scene and announced that a “multi-disciplinary team” would probe everything from the condition of the tracks to the signaling systems and the brakes.
“Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Earl Weener, a National Transportation Safety Board official, told reporters Sunday.
Cuomo said the sharp curve where the train derailed could not be blamed entirely for the accident.
“The turn has been here for decades. Trains negotiate the turn all day long,” Cuomo said, adding that the train’s two “black boxes” — one from the front of the train, the other from the back — had both been recovered.
“That will give you the speed of the train, whether the train was going too fast…Trains are supposed to slow down to about 30 miles per hour for the curve,” Cuomo explained in remarks Monday to broadcaster CNN.
The boxes will also “tell you if the brakes were applied, if they were, when.”
He said a crane had worked overnight to right the derailed train cars.
Investigators will interview the train crew and conductor in the next days, Weener said Sunday. He expected investigators to remain on site for up to 10 days.
The Times, citing a senior city official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, reported that the train operator told first responders the brakes had failed. The account however had not been confirmed, though Cuomo acknowledged the rumor on CNN.
At least one passenger said the train was speeding as it took a curve on a downward slope leading into Spuyten Duyvil station, just north of Manhattan.
Before reaching the station, the train’s seven cars derailed and flew across a grassy bank separating the railroad from the Hudson and Harlem rivers, which meet at that point.
The front car came to rest only a few feet from the water, and two cars toppled on their side.
Three of the dead were thrown from the train, police said, and divers searched the rivers in case other passengers were hurled into the frigid water.
Officials said there were some 120 passengers aboard the train when it flew off the tracks.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority identified the four victims, who ranged in age from 35 to 59. Two were men, two were women, and all were New York-area residents.
The White House said President Barack Obama was briefed on the accident.
Train services were suspended because of the derailment, which occurred at the end of America’s travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Cuomo said commuter service may not be restored until the end of the week.
A freight train derailed on a nearby stretch of track earlier this year. Weener said there was no indication that this was a factor in Sunday’s incident, but said it would be considered in the probe.