Hoboken train crash: Engineer claims he was going at speed limit, NTSB says

The engineer of the NJ Transit train that crashed in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Thursday told investigators he has no memory of the impact, the National Transportation Safety Board said during a news conference on Sunday.

According to NTSB Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, engineer Thomas Gallagher, 48, of Morris Plains, New Jersey, said during his interview with the agency that he was well rested and his cellphone was turned off inside his backpack at the time of the deadly crash.

Gallagher said the train, which was running on the Pascack Valley Line, operated normally throughout the trip from Spring Valley, New York, to Hoboken. He told investigators he had clear visibility and remembers blowing the train’s horn as they entered the station, Dinh-Zarr said.

Though Gallagher said he has no memory of the crash, he last remembered the train’s speedometer at 10 mph as it approached the station, according to Dinh-Zarr. Gallagher said he next woke up on the floor of the cab. He was treated at a hospital for injuries and released.

When asked if it was possible that the train was going at 10 mph, which is the speed limit for the station, Dinh-Zarr said it was “unclear what the speed was.”

The crash, which happened around 8:45 a.m. on Track 5, killed 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, of Hoboken, and injured 114 others, officials said.

The NTSB has hit a number of setbacks with its investigation into the crash.

While the train is equipped with two event recorders, the NTSB said on Sunday the machine in the rear of the train was not working at the time of the crash.

“Yesterday our recorders experts worked with experts from the manufacturers to access data from the recovered locomotive event recorder, which was built in 1995. Unfortunately the event recorder was not functioning during this trip,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Jim Southworth, NTSB’s investigator-in-charge, said federal law requires a functional event recorder to be in the front car. Dinh-Zarr said she remains hopeful that the other recorder, from cars built in the 2000s, will yield information including the train speed, distance traveled, throttle input, brake application and brake performance.

The event recorder in the lead car, however, is still inaccessible to investigators due to debris, according to Dinh-Zarr. When the train collided with the wall of the building, officials said part of the roof canopy collapsed onto the train, rendering several of the cars unsafe for the NTSB to investigate. 

Dinh-Zarr said a contractor was brought in and crews are working around the clock to safely remove the roof canopy and other debris while trying to preserve as much evidence as possible.

Meanwhile, the NTSB has reviewed surveillance videos as well as footage from other trains that pulled into the station earlier that morning, but Dinh-Zarr said no pertinent information has been recovered from them.

On Saturday, signal abnormalities had been ruled out and inspectors had completed a walking tour of the track and found nothing that would have affected the train’s performance, the NTSB said.

The Federal Railroad Administration had begun an investigation into New Jersey Transit’s safety practices before Thursday’s crash, The New York Times reported on Saturday, citing an official who it said had been briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss it publicly. 

An initial safety audit was completed in June, the newspaper reported.

The FRA and New Jersey Transit did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Times report.

Dinh-Zarr stressed that the NTSB’s work is only in the “fact gathering phase” of the investigation, and said the agency will not be releasing findings or speculating on a cause while working at the crash site. She also stressed that the agency’s investigation and its findings are separate from the FAA or any other agency.

(With David M. Schwartz, Valerie Bauman and Reuters)