After Hoboken train crash, shaken commuters watch each other’s backs

When the train hit the wall, Ben Rose was sure he was hearing a bomb or explosion.

Rose, an 18-year-old student at nearby Stevens Institute of Technology, had arrived at Hoboken by train just before the crash. He was some hundred feet away when he heard the sound, and saw what seemed to be a flash of light. People started screaming and running and Rose ran, too, backpack bouncing. He slowed at a bike rack near the Hudson River, where it seemed like he was out of danger, but kept walking away from the elegant metal-roofed train station.

It emerged later that a train going faster than permitted had crashed through barriers and slammed into a wall, resulting in more than 110 injuried and at least one fatality. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing to determine the cause of the crash.

Considering the bomb planted in Chelsea earlier this month, Rose’s mind naturally went to terrorism. For a while, he and others in the area had no idea what had happened, leaving some with the sinking feeling they had escaped a terror attack. Rose said it was 45 minutes before the news spread widely and his phone started ringing with calls from friends and family making harried attempts to make sure he was safe.

It’s a natural reaction for those close to the scene, shocked out of their everyday lives: Rose takes the train every morning. Hours later he said he still felt shaken.

But leaping to conclusions about terrorism — officials refused to speculate about a cause in a briefing Thursday afternoon but gave no indication that this was anything but a tragic accident — is much less excusable from far-off observers. Such as the increasingly execrable retired pitcher Curt Schilling, who had no qualms making that leap hours after the crash.

The fears that flash through our minds

It was a shocking enough scene Thursday morning without connecting all our calamities to a common enemy. The crash caused the roof at the station to partially collapse, debris and wires dangling and falling. It sounded “like a missile,” one eyewitness said.

That only one person had been killed was a “silver lining,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a news briefing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The engineer directing the train had survived and was “cooperating” with the investigation, Christie said.

The governors rightfully declined to speculate about the causes of the crash. It was too early to do more than guess why the train had exceeded the 10 mile-per-hour speed limit approach to the station.

But then Cuomo seemed to reverse course unnecessarily — he included the crash in what he called the area’s “difficult times” over the past weeks and months, citing the Chelsea explosion and natural disasters, and thanking the Linden police who had apprehended suspected bomber Ahmad Rahami.

We don’t need terrorism to look out for each other

That kind of rousing talk might bolster Cuomo’s in-charge persona — he, like Christie, is fond of donning a windbreaker and appearing at the scene of any problem or tragedy.

But plenty of tri-state area residents were just fine without the tough talk.

Early reports said commuters helped first responders as victims escaped from the scene. William Blaine, a former New York City police officer and current freight engineer who’d just exited another train, helped to keep others away from the debris and dangerous area. One Hoboken police officer said she arrived a few blocks from the station to hear a mother trying to find a babysitter for her daughter, so she could go back and lend a hand.

Later, local businesses donated food and coffee to victims and responders. Sorority representatives from Stevens pushed shopping carts with brownies, water, and donuts.

The owner of The Dubliner, a nearby bar, approached the riverside park where Cuomo and Christie were set to appear. He pushed aside an orange safety gate within site of the damaged station to deliver a stack of pizzas to a City of Hoboken pickup truck flying a small American flag. He shook hands with the police officers and NJ Transit workers standing around it.

He said it would be a long day for them, standing outside on a chilly, windy day of fall.

Soon the boxes were opened, and gratefully emptied.