NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken kills 1, injures dozens of passengers

One woman was killed and more than 100 people were injured when a commuter train crashed into a station in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the Thursday morning rush hour, officials said.

Investigators recovered a black box recorder from the rear of the NJ Transit train, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed on Friday. The recorder contains information about the train’s speed, throttle position and use of brakes.

A second box, located in the train’s front car, has not yet been removed because of debris, a NTSB spokesman said. It could take “a day or two” before investigators can fully access the train, according to NTSB officials.

“We’re making progress, but we have much more information to gather,” said T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, the vice chair of the NTSB. “It may be a day or two more [before] we can gain acces to the site.”

When the train crashed into the station around 8:45 a.m. on Thursday, a woman on the platform was hit and killed by debris, and 114 others were injured, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. The state medical examiner’s office identified the woman as Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken. She previously worked for software company SAP in Brazil, the company said in a statement. Her LinkedIn page identified her as a corporate lawyer who attended Florida International University.

Most of the injured were people aboard the train, including the engineer, Christie said. Sen. Cory Booker said the majority of serious injuries took place in the front car.

The engineer, identified by NJ Transit as Thomas Gallagher, 48, was treated at a hospital and released. Investigators are “conducting and scheduling” interviews with the conductor, brakeman and engineer, Dinh-Zarr said, adding that the NTSB has “been in touch with the engineer but need to interview him.”

Blood and urine samples have been collected from Gallagher and have been sent to a laboratory for testing, she said.

“Once that has been analyzed, which takes a while at the labs, then we’ll be able to have the results of that,” Dinh-Zarr said. “We’re not here to find guilt; we’re only here to find out what happened.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who canceled his trip to Israel for the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres to respond to the incident, said that the train was traveling at a “high rate of speed” when it crashed. He said that the “silver lining” is that there weren’t more fatalities, remarking that the destruction is “significant.” The speed limit going into the station is 10 miles per hour, according to Dinh-Zarr.

Christie said that officials would not speculate on the cause of the crash, which happened on Track 5. Train No. 1614, on the Pascack Valley line from Spring Valley, crashed through the barriers and a wall into the terminal, officials said. Christie said that he and Cuomo would “work together to ensure that the investigation is seamless and coordinated, that we come to a conclusion as quickly as possible.”

The New Jersey governor said that the White House called him Thursday to pledge resources to the investigation. The White House also dispatched the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railway Administration to the scene to help with the probe into what happened.

Cuomo added, “The NTSB will do a full investigation as to what happened exactly and we will let the facts speak for themselves. If there is something to learn from those facts after that investigation, then we will be sure to learn it and incorporate that lesson.”

The NTSB said that investigators would look into any similarities between Thursday’s crash and an accident at the same station on Mother’s Day in 2011 that injured more than 30 people.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference on Thursday, Dinh-Zarr said structural damage from the building’s canopy collapsing onto the train has delayed the full investigation into the cause. A contractor is being brought in to remove part of the canopy so that the agency can have access to the cars and continue the investigation.

According to Dinh-Zarr, the NTSB will be looking at all aspects of the crash, including operations, possible mechanical issues, human performance and track issues, over the course of a seven- to 10-day investigation at the site. She also stressed that investigators will only proceed to inspect the cars “when it’s safe to do so.”

The NTSB will also have access to two video recorders, one on each end of the train.

“Our mission is not just to understand what happened, but why it happened,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Cuomo and Christie had said that there was structural damage to Hoboken terminal, specifically to the NJ Transit portion. “We do not yet know how long that damage will take to repair or the consequence of that damage,” Cuomo said. NJ Transit service remained suspended into and out of the Hoboken station.

The PATH terminal’s structural integrity appeared to be fine, Christie said, and transit officials resumed PATH service at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Christie praised the “extraordinary reaction” from law enforcement, EMS and civilians who aided in the evacuation and triage of passengers.

Cuomo, too, thanked first responders for a “magnificent job.”

He added, “I’d also like to take this opportunity to say these are difficult times, over these past weeks and months. Between terrorist attacks, natural disasters, we have had our hands full in this country, we have had our hands full in the Northeast . . . Today is another situation for us to deal with, but I also believe that as many challenges as Mother Nature sends us or our enemies send us, we are up to handling them. We will handle them one at a time, but when we work together there is nothing that we can’t accomplish and nothing that we can’t overcome and we’re going to do that with today’s tragedy as well.”

Witnesses of Thursday’s crash described a grisly and chaotic scene.

Nassima Touni, a personal trainer at a Hoboken gym, was buying coffee near the terminal at the time of the crash. When she heard what had happened, she rushed to the scene to connect with her husband, who was waiting in the terminal to take the light rail; he was uninjured.

“There were bodies everywhere by the time I walked there,” she said. “There were people covered in blood. One woman was on the ground and her whole leg was opened, bleeding.”

“It was very scary. People were screaming in shock,” she said.

Linda Albelli, 62, said she was sitting in her seat in one of the rear cars when the train approached the station.

“I noticed, ‘he’s not slowing up, we’re going too fast,’ and with that there was this tremendous crash,” she said.

Injured passengers sat on benches in the train station while they waited for first responders, Albelli said.

“There was just so much, a lot of people in need of attention,” she said.

Rick Ciappa, a NJ Transit mechanic and safety inspector, said that he probably would have been hit by the train if the crash had happened five minutes later.

“I was doing brake testing at the end of the station. If it had happened five minutes later, I would have been right there,” he said.

“People were bleeding, busted up on the train,” he said of the scene. “People were buried under the concrete.”

Mike DeFusco, a Hoboken city councilman who visited the crash site, credited the first responders for their quick work.

“I was here this morning watching first responders do an amazing job taking care of those injured,” he said. 

DeFusco described the terminal as a “turn of-the-century, beautiful Beaux-arts structure that’s a source of great pride for Hoboken” and said it was “a gut punch” to see what had happened.

“The community of Hoboken is a strong one and I know we will come together and get through this,” he said. “I look forward to the return of normal operations. Right now we need to wait for the state and federal authorities to finish conducting their investigations looking into what happened.”

– Additional reporting by Vincent Barone, Ivan Pereira, Lauren Cook, Nicole Brown, Reuters and Newsday