Important Questions Yet to Be Answered in Deadly Hoboken Crash

by | September 30, 2016

By James M O'Neill

The mundane rituals of the daily commute exploded into a chaotic scene of ripped metal, tumbling steel beams and screaming riders early Thursday as an NJ Transit train from Bergen County plowed through a barrier at the Hoboken train station, killing a Hoboken woman, injuring more than 100 and sparking a federal investigation that will try to answer why the train failed to stop.

The accident will also complicate the regular commute for many North Jersey riders over the coming days, since questions remain about the structural integrity of the Hoboken station and regular service there will be disrupted for some time. PATH trains, however, which originate beneath the terminal and travel under the Hudson to Manhattan, are expected to remain operating on regular schedule.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board expected to pull the event recorder from the train's locomotive Friday afternoon so they can collect data on the train's speed and braking system, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the board's vice chair.

She said the investigation will likely take a week to 10 days. Investigators could not access the recorder in the control car of the train Thursday that breached the platform, concerned about safety since the platform roof still lay on part of the train. The locomotive was located at the rear of the train and pushed the passenger cars into the station.

"We will only proceed to inspect the cars when it is safe to do so," Dinh-Zarr said.

Investigators will also interview the train engineer, Thomas Gallagher, who was treated at a local hospital and released late Thursday. Police were dispatched to Gallagher's home in Morris Plains on Thursday night to protect the premises, said the borough's mayor.

Gallagher serves as a locomotive engineer for NJ Transit and earned nearly $111,000 last year, including more than $39,000 in overtime pay, according to state records.

"We are here to find the most accurate information on this accident," Dinh-Zarr said. She said the board will not try to determine probable cause while on the scene.

The person who died in the accident was Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken, according to the state medical examiner's office. For three years she had been a senior legal counsel in Brazil with SAP, the computer software company, but left the company earlier this year, a company spokesperson said. She previously worked for two years in a similar capacity at LG Electronics, according to her LinkedIn page.

De Kroon attended Florida International University's College of Business, and had moved to New Jersey from Miami Beach. She was originally from Santos, Brazil, according to her Facebook page. She had been standing on the track when the train came in and was hit by debris.

"SAP is profoundly saddened and shaken by the news of today's train crash in New Jersey," a company spokesman said in a statement. "We express our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and all those impacted by today's tragic event."

Some witnesses said the three-car Pascack Valley Line train, filled with about 250 passengers, was traveling about 30 mph when it slammed into the bumper at the end of the track, catapulting the first car into the air and knocking over some of the metal stanchions that held up a roof over the tracks. However, eyewitness accounts from accident scenes are often unreliable. The approved maximum speed going into the station is 10 mph, Dinh-Zarr said.

The collapsing roof slammed onto the top of the train, crushing the front of the first car to within a few feet of the floor. Passengers in the front had to crawl on hands and knees to escape the wreckage, while others farther back opened or smashed train windows to get out.

"It felt like the World Trade Center coming down," said Dominic Sgamvelloni from New Milford, a passenger in the third row of the train. "The roof almost caved into my head. It smelled like fire. I thought there was fire and smoke. I thought we would die from the smoke. Two guys behind me opened the window. They climbed out first. Then a pregnant lady, then me."

Another passenger from New Milford who sat in the first row said the door to the engineer's compartment was open and he had a clear view of the engineer as the train pulled into the station. It appeared nothing was out of the ordinary _ but the train never stopped.

"We're not going to speculate about the cause of the accident," Gov. Chris Christie said during an afternoon news conference, advising the public not to jump to conclusions.

The train originated in Spring Valley, N.Y., and Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that if the investigation provides lessons about how to improve commuter safety, they will take steps to do so.

This was the second crash of its kind in the past five years at the busy Hoboken commuter rail complex. In 2011, an arriving PATH train also approaching at a high rate of speed hit the bumper at the end of its track, injuring 30 passengers, the engineer and a conductor, according to federal records.

The equipment at the Hoboken terminal is antiquated, according to some experts, and unlike other area stations relies solely on the engineer to stop the train. Some officials on Thursday, including New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, attacked NJ Transit for failing to install a safety system called positive train control that the agency has been slow to adopt.

"That is absolutely one area we always look at," Dinh-Zarr said. "As you know, the NTSB has been recommending positive train control for 40 years."

Officials also expressed thanks that more people hadn't died, given the extent of the damage.

First responders from many surrounding towns rushed to the scene to help provide immediate aid to passengers and then send them on to area hospitals. By day's end Thursday, the majority of those treated at hospitals had been released. The rest had injuries that were serious but not life-threatening.

Train No. 1614 left Spring Valley, N.Y., at 7:23 a.m., and made stops in many Bergen County towns, including Westwood, Oradell, Hackensack and Wood-Ridge. Those who take the train all the way to Hoboken can switch there to PATH trains or ferries that go to Manhattan.

Mike Larson, a machinist with NJ Transit, was standing on the platform as the train arrived. He estimated it was traveling about 30 mph at the point where it should have stopped. "The impact sounded like a bomb-like explosion," he said. "I really don't know why he came in so quickly. I can only speculate it was a medical condition like a heart attack or something."

He saw the train hit the bumper block at the end of the track, and then go airborne. The top of the car hit the overhanging roof above the platform, which then crushed the first half of the front car. The car roof was sandwiched down to the level of the seats, he said.

"Some bystanders crawled on their hands and knees to help people out," he said. "People had a lot of bad cuts. One lady had a full length slice on her leg. Some had injuries."

Rick Ciappa, a safety inspector for NJ Transit, was working in the station when the train crashed and rushed to help a woman on the ground near the scene.

"She had that death look in her eyes," Ciappa said. "I think most people who got hurt weren't on the train. They were going by, having their coffee, going to the PATH, going to the ferry."

Nancy Solomon, managing editor of New Jersey Public Radio, arrived at the Hoboken station on another train moments after the Pascack Line train crashed. She saw people with cuts on their faces. Some people were bruised, others were limping or held their arms. "There were about five people lying on the ground who could not sit up and were being attended to by other passengers," she said.

She heard police yell to her and other passengers not to go anywhere near the crash site. At that point she still didn't know what happened.

"You think it's a shooter," Solomon said. "You think it's a bomb. Everybody around me was frozen in their tracks, wondering what was going on." Eventually she was escorted out.

Jersey City Medical Center set up a triage center at the scene, where they decided whether people needed an ambulance, and if so, if they needed a trauma center. The others in need of medical care were sent to Jersey City Medical Center on NJ Transit buses.

The hospital treated 66 patients in all, said hospital spokesman Mark Rabson. Of those, 13 went to the emergency room trauma center, while 53 were handled in a makeshift triage center set up in the hospital's cafeteria.

Each passenger brought there had a triage tag around their neck, color-coded to indicate the severity of their injuries. Staff hovered over each passenger and conducted an examination.

Several passengers sat in wheelchairs. One man had tape on his forehead and a bruised cheek.

"We've drilled for this type of event for years," Rabson said.

Carepoint Health Hoboken University Medical Center took care of 22 passengers, said Dr. Meika Roberson, the hospital's chief medical officer. Five had lacerations, three had fractures and others had minor bruises. One passenger was also treated at an affiliated facility, Christ Hospital in Jersey City.

"We've treated everybody," Roberson said. "Everybody is in stable condition. They have been connected with their family members if needed. Every patient has been treated and is safe."

Ambulances from as far as Montclair and Verona were used to transport patients.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer visited with patients later in the day, and said many appeared traumatized by what they had experienced.

Zimmer thanked first responders, and said the patients told her many stories of commuters helping each other, including one person who helped an injured traveler contact a relative and then stayed with the person until the traveler was taken to the hospital.

"There are good Samaritans out there," Zimmer said.

(Staff writers Christopher Maag, Mary Jo Layton, Lindy Washburn, Katie Sobko, Nick Pugliese, Jeff Pillets, Scott Fallon, Kara Yorio, Matt McGrath, Herb Jackson and Abbott Koloff contributed to this story.)

(c)2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)