NEW YORK — The 5:54 from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was rumbling through the Bronx on Sunday morning. Only 100 to 150 people were onboard — department store employees who were bracing for another after-Thanksgiving crush, tourists from Texas who wanted to climb the Statue of Liberty, a police officer who moonlights as a security guard on his day off.
Some were dozing when the train rounded a bend near where tracks pass under the Henry Hudson Bridge. Some were listening to music on headphones. Suddenly, with a jerk that disrupted the steady train’s steady rhythm, their world turned upside down as they were hurled from one side to the other. In the chaos of screeching metal and the shower of debris as the train kept plowing along, some passengers grabbed for the luggage racks and held on. Others hugged their seats as the first four cars of the eight-car train flew off the tracks and landed on their sides.
“I’m thinking I’m going into the water,” said Eddie Russell, 48, who had been listening with his eyes closed to LL Cool J. “I was thinking of me, surviving.”
Officials said four people on board were killed and more than 60 were injured, 11 critically. Three of the four dead were thrown from the train after the windows blew out, the officials said.
It was not clear how fast the Metro-North train was going. But an official from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the train operator had reported that the train was going into the turn too fast and that he had performed an emergency braking maneuver. The operator told the first rescuers to reach the scene that he had “dumped” the brakes, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Railroad experts said that dumping the brakes is a last-resort move that has the effect of slamming on the emergency brakes on all the cars of a train at once. It is usually done to avert a collision with another train or a car at a grade-level crossing.
Officials opened an investigation but cautioned that it would take time to piece together the evidence and pinpoint a possible cause. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the site with instructions to inspect the overturned cars and interpret information from the train’s “event recorders,” devices that are somewhat similar to the flight recorders on airplanes. The Federal Railroad Administration also dispatched a team of investigators.
Earl F. Weener of the NTSB said at a news conference with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that investigators had yet to interview the operator of the train, who was among those injured. A spokeswoman for Metro-North said the engineer, identified as William Rockefeller, had about 14 years’ experience with the line. There were also three conductors on the train.
“Our mission is to not just understand what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again,” Weener said.
The crash was the latest episode in a trying year for the Metro-North, the nation’s second-largest commuter railroad, and the first with fatalities in Metro-North’s 30-year history. In May, two Metro-North trains slammed into each other near Fairfield, Conn., during the evening rush. Scores of passengers were hurt, five critically.
And in July, a CSX freight train derailed near where the Metro-North train left the tracks on Sunday. Officials said there was no connection between those two accidents.
By Sunday night, the transportation safety board had given Metro-North clearance to begin removing the crippled train and repairing the tracks. But the crash was likely to disrupt the Monday commute for thousands of passengers on the railroad’s Hudson Line. Metro-North arranged for buses to take Hudson Line passengers to White Plains, N. Y., on Sunday and catch trains on another line that was running normally. On Monday, Hudson Line trains will be running as far south as Yonkers, where passengers will be able to catch buses to the 242nd Street station of the No. 1 train.
The train jumped the tracks on one of the sharpest curves in the Metro-North system, not far from where Metro-North trains break off from an Amtrak line that goes to Albany. Cuomo said the Metro-North engineer had described applying the brakes as the train approached the curve, a stretch of track where the speed limit dropped to 30 mph, from 70. But it was unclear whether the brakes had malfunctioned or whether they had been activated too late.
“We’ve always had this configuration — we didn’t have accidents, right?” Cuomo said at a news conference. “It can’t just be the curve,” the governor said, adding, “There has to be another factor.”
The train was propelled by a locomotive at the back end, as is customary on Metro-North’s Hudson line: Northbound trains are pulled by an engine at the front, but the trains are not turned around at the end of the line. Instead, southbound trains are pushed, with the locomotive at the back. As it came off the tracks, it plowed up dirt as it burrowed into the ground.
It came to a stop in a postcard scene of a late-autumn landscape, among bulrushes and trees that had long since lost their leaves. Police and Fire Department rescuers had to take down part of a chain-link fence to reach the tracks, not far from where the Hudson meets the Harlem River.
The rescuers put ladders up to one of the overturned cars, climbed in and “started pulling people out,” said Kevin Farrell, 28, a hospital administrator who lives in a co-op building overlooking the crash site. He said he watched passengers being helped out with their arms already in splints. Several were away taken on stretchers.
The trip had begun at before sunrise in Poughkeepsie, the riverfront town where New York’s colonial leaders ratified the U.S. Constitution. The train picked up its small collection of people with their own reasons to be riding a train into Manhattan so early on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It stopped in Ossining an hour after it left Poughkeepsie, then Tarrytown 18 minutes before the crash.
That was its last stop before 125th Street in Manhattan, where it was due 12 minutes after it derailed.
Cuomo, at the news conference with Weener of the NTSB, said more than once that “safety is Job One.”
“If there is a lesson to be learned from this tragedy,” the governor said, “we want to learn it.”
The transportation authority identified the victims as James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose, N.Y.; Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens, N.Y.; Jim G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring, N.Y.; and Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh, N.Y. The injured passengers were taken to a number of hospitals. A police officer who was on the train was taken to St. Barnabas Hospital with broken bones. She was in stable condition, officials at the hospital said.
NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital said two of the 14 passengers it had treated were in critical condition on Sunday night; five others were admitted. Four other passengers were treated at NewYork-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital at Broadway and 220th Street. All four were released, the hospital said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not visit the accident scene, but he visited victims at Montefiore Hospital and St. Barnabas Hospital.
“The two families that I talked to, their loved ones were in serious but not critical condition and the doctors had told them both that they were going to survive and, with some pain and that sort of thing, come out OK,” Bloomberg said after his visit to St. Barnabas and before he entered Montefiore.
“Both very badly banged up, in one case the woman was in the operating room so I didn’t talk to her, I talked to family members,” he said. “In the other case, I talked to the police officer, who is 37 years old, been on the job for eight years, and she was in good spirits; actually, we joked about me being unemployed in 32 days and the fact that I was too old to join the Police Department. She had three kids and the kids are OK. Somebody had taken care of them.”
He added, “The tragic thing is four people who aren’t going to come home. I think at this point most, if not all, of those that were critical look like they will be OK, eventually, live. But four certainly not, who died. And now it is up to the NTSB to try to figure out what happened.”
Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano said the consequences of the crash — the injuries and the disruptions — could have been worse if it had not happened on a Sunday morning. “On a work day, fully occupied, it would have been a tremendous disaster,” he said.
But passengers said it was harrowing just the same. Some had fallen asleep, like Joel Zaritsky of Poughkeepsie, on his way to Manhattan for a dental convention, and Ryan Kelly of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., on his way to his job at a discount clothing store in Lower Manhattan. Kelly said he had holiday music playing on his headphones and woke up realizing that the train was tilting over.
“I grabbed the seat and got thrown into the shelf where you put your stuff,” he said. “I hooked my hand in there and shielded my face with the other hand.” He said one hand was hurt.
Russell, listening to LL Cool J in the third car from the back, said the train tipped and slid along “like a vacuum cleaner” as it came off the tracks, with gravel and dirt pouring in as the windows shattered. He gripped his seat as the train rolled over.
“You had to hold the chair so you didn’t fall out,” he said.
He said he helped other passengers before climbing out into a field of broken glass and debris. He was taken to Jacobi Medical Center, where he was treated for back pain and released, and said he was rethinking his routine.
“You think you’re safe on the train,” he said. “I know I’m going to be taking a car for a while.”