First responders work at the site of a derailment of a Metro-North passenger train in the Bronx borough of New York on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
A New York City commuter train rounding a riverside curve derailed and came to rest only inches from the water Sunday, killing four people, injuring more than 60 and sending a chain of toppled cars trailing off the track just inches from the water, authorities said.
Some of the roughly 150 passengers on the early morning Metro-North train from suburban Poughkeepsie to Manhattan were jolted awake around 7:20 a.m. to screams and the frightening sensation of their compartment rolling over on a bend where the Hudson and Harlem rivers meet in the Bronx. When the motion stopped, four or five of the seven cars were off the rails.
It was the latest accident in a troubled year for the second-biggest U.S. commuter railroad, which had never experienced a passenger death in an accident in its 31-year history.
"Four people lost their lives today in the holiday season, right after Thanksgiving," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference.
Eleven of those hurt were believed to be critically injured and another six seriously hurt, according to the Fire Department.
The train operator was among the injured, Cuomo said.
Federal investigators say the cars from the train will be turned upright to check for any other possible victims.
The National Transportation Safety Board held a briefing Sunday afternoon to discuss the Metro-North derailment earlier in the day.
Cuomo said the track did not appear to be faulty, leaving speed as a possible culprit for the crash, but he noted that the National Transportation Safety Board would determine what happened.
Smoke, debris everywhere
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas F. Prendergast said investigators would look at numerous factors, including the train, the track and signal system, the operators and speed.
The speed limit on the curve is 48 km/h, compared with 113 km/h in the area before the curve, MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. The train's data recorders should be able to tell how fast it was travelling, she said.
One passenger, Frank Tatulli, told WABC-TV that the train appeared to be going "a lot faster" than usual as it approached the sharp curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station. The station's name comes from a Dutch word for a local waterway, sometimes translated as "Devil's whirlpool."
The train was about half full at the time of the crash, rail officials said, with some passengers likely heading to the city for holiday shopping.
Joel Zaritsky was dozing as he travelled to the city for a dental convention.
"I woke up when the car started rolling several times. Then I saw the gravel coming at me, and I heard people screaming," he told The Associated Press, holding his bloody right hand. "There was smoke everywhere and debris. People were thrown to the other side of the train."
Nearby residents awoke to a building-shaking boom. Angel Gonzalez was in bed in his high-rise apartment overlooking the rail curve when he heard the roar.
"I thought it was a plane that crashed," he said.
Mike Gallo heard the same noise as he was walking his dog. He looked down at the tracks and "knew it was a tragedy right away. I saw injured people climbing out of the train."
Within minutes, dozens of emergency crews arrived and carried passengers away on stretchers, some wearing neck braces. Others, bloodied and scratched, held ice packs to their heads.
Firefighters shattered windows of the toppled train cars to reach passengers, and they used pneumatic jacks and air bags to make sure they uncovered any victims who might have been pinned by train seats or other objects.
Police divers searched the waters to make sure no passenger had been thrown in. Other emergency crews scoured the surrounding woods.
Disaster could have been worse
Three men and one woman were killed, the MTA said. Three of the dead were found outside the train, and one was found inside, authorities said. The victims' names had not yet been released.
Victims with a spinal cord injury, an open leg fracture and other broken bones were being treated at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, one of the medical facilities that took patients, spokesman Steven Clark said.
Edwin Valero was in an apartment building above the accident. At first, he said, he didn't notice that the train had flipped over.
"I didn't realize it had been turned over until I saw a firefighter walking on the window," he said.
To Cuomo, "it looked like a toy train set that was mangled by some super-powerful force," the governor said in a phone interview with CNN.
As deadly as the derailment was, the toll could have been far greater had it happened on a weekday, or had the lead car plunged into the water instead of coming to rest on its edge.
"On a workday, fully occupied, it would have been a tremendous disaster," New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore Joseph Cassano told reporters at the scene.
Amtrak Empire service was halted between New York City and Albany after the derailment. Amtrak said its Northeast Corridor service between Boston and Washington was unaffected.
It was not clear when service would resume on the affected part of Metro-North's Hudson line, which carries about 18,000 people on an average weekday morning.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said contingency plans were in the works for Monday morning rush hour, possibly using buses.
President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of the victims of the train derailment. The White House issued a statement saying the president was briefed on the accident Sunday morning and would continue to stay in touch with New York officials throughout the day.
Sunday's accident is the second passenger train derailment in six months for the rail service.
On May 17, an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was struck by a westbound train. The crash injured 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. Eleven days later, track foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a train in West Haven, Connecticut.
In July, a freight train full of garbage derailed on the same Metro-North line near the site of Sunday's wreckage.
"Safety is clearly a problem on this stretch of track," state Sen. Jeff Klein, who represents the nearby area, said Sunday.
Earlier this month, Metro-North's chief engineer, Robert Puciloski, told members of the NTSB investigating the May derailment and Luden's death that the railroad is "behind in several areas," including a five-year schedule of cyclical maintenance that had not been conducted in the area of the Bridgeport derailment since 2005.
The NTSB issued an urgent recommendation to Metro-North that it use "redundant protection," such as a procedure known as "shunting" in which crews attach a device to the rail in a work zone alerting the dispatcher to inform approaching trains to stop.
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