By Verena Dobnik and Deepti Hajela
NEW YORK – A New York City commuter train rounding a riverside curve derailed 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 100 to 150 passengers on the early morning Metro-North train from suburban Poughkeepsie to Manhattan were jolted from sleep 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 in the latest, and deadliest, example of this year’s troubles for the nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad.
“Four people lost their lives today in the holiday season, right after Thanksgiving,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference. Eleven of the injured 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.
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.
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 30 mph, compared with 70 mph 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 traveling, 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.”
While some passengers were headed to work, others aboard the train were probably going to New York for holiday shopping — and many more might have joined them had the train been later in the morning.
Joel Zaritsky was dozing as he traveled 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. Firefighters shattered windows of the toppled train cars to reach injured passengers.
Police divers searched the waters to make sure no passenger had been thrown in. Other emergency crews scoured the surrounding woods.
Dazed passengers were given ice to apply to their wounds, and in some cases, bodies covered with yellow blankets could be seen.
Three of the dead were found outside the train, and one was found inside, authorities said. Their families had not yet been notified.
Passengers were taken off the derailed train, with dozens of them bloodied and scratched, holding ice packs to their heads.
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.
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.
When the NTSB gives the go-ahead, the MTA will begin efforts to restore service, Prendergast said.
Sunday’s accident is the second passenger train derailment in six months for Metro-North — and the first passenger death in an accident in its nearly 31-year history, Anders said.
On May 17, an eastbound train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., 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, Conn.
In July, a freight train full of garbage derailed on the same Metro-North line on another curve, about a half-mile away. This fall, service on Metro-North’s line between New York City and Connecticut was hobbled for days after a high-voltage feeder line failed.
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.
Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong, Colleen Long, Jake Pearson and Jennifer Peltz in New York, Joan Lowy in Washington and Stephen Singer in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.