Hoboken Train Crash Data Proves Difficult to Access


As federal investigators continue efforts to figure out the cause of Thursday’s fatal train crash in Hoboken, New Jersey, they have encountered problems retrieving and accessing information necessary to help determine what led to the accident that killed one woman and injured more than 100 people.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board were able to remove the train’s event recorder from the rear locomotive, but they said they could not download some information – including critical data on the train’s speed in the moments before the crash, as well as when, or if, the train’s brakes and throttle were applied.

Now officials are sending the device to the manufacturer for assistance, NTSB Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a news conference Friday. Without access to the information on the recorder, officials cannot determine what may have caused or contributed to the crash, she said.

“Once the NTSB has a successful download, investigators will use that to validate speed,” Dinh-Zarr said.

The train’s second event recorder, at the front in the cab car, continues to be inaccessible because of debris that fell from the station canopy as the train barreled off the tracks and onto the platform. Investigators have not been able to get close to that end of the train largely because of the piles of concrete and twisted metal. Contractors are working to clear the area of the debris.

There are also concerns about asbestos in the air and exposed high-voltage wires that must be removed by New Jersey Transit staff.

“I want to emphasize, there is no perishable evidence aboard this train,” Dinh-Zarr said.

The train’s engineer was released from a hospital Thursday night and declined to give an immediate interview to investigators because he was heavily medicated after the crash, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation,

But Dinh-Zarr said Friday that the engineer and other crew members are cooperating with the investigation.

“The one who’s injured – we’re just doing it at their convenience,” Dinh-Zarr said of the train’s crew, after she was asked by a reporter about the engineer. “But they’ve been very cooperative.”

NTSB officials are planning to interview passengers and crew members in the coming days. Officials have also sent workers’ toxicology reports to a lab in Oklahoma City.

Dinh-Zarr said she expects that the on-site investigation will take at least seven to 10 days; she did not know when the station would be able to reopen for service.

Investigators have been able to make some progress on several fronts: For instance, they’ve secured the hard drives for the 22 surveillance cameras in the station and are downloading videos that will offer images of the moments before and after the crash.

Dinh-Zarr said the two dozen NTSB on-site team members are keeping busy in the meantime: A laser-modeling team is in the process of scanning the station to create a three-dimensional model of the train. Drones and walking crews will be used to inspect the tracks approaching the station.

And officials will be poring over records related to the employment history, performance and training records of the train’s engineer, conductor and brakeman, as well as inspection reports and other documents about the train itself.

The New Jersey Transit commuter train had been traveling from Spring Valley, New York, along the Pascack Valley Line, into Hoboken Terminal, a major transportation hub that serves more than 60,000 people on an average weekday.

As the train passed through the rail yard and approached the station, passengers began to notice that it wasn’t slowing down. Instead, the train zoomed into the station, where it struck a crash-absorbing barrier at the end of the tracks, jumped onto the concrete platform and continued plowing through the concourse until it struck the side of the main station building.

In the process, the train blasted through the structural beams that had been holding up a permanent metal canopy. Metal and concrete collapsed onto the concourse, landing on the front of the train, and also causing the incident’s one fatality: Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken, was struck by falling debris.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Martine Powers