Freight train engineer William Blaine was just looking up at the menu in the Dunkin Donuts at the Hoboken train station when he heard a loud noise such as brings to mind one word in these days of terror.
“Bomb,” he later said. “The first thing you’re going to think is terrorist—somebody blew it up.”
Blaine turned back into the station and looked to his right. The scene he beheld at 8:35 a.m. Thursday was just what he might have imagined after an explosion. Debris. Blood. People fleeing.
He then looked to the left and saw something he would have never expected. New Jersey Transit train 1614 had plowed on past the bumper at the end of a track and crashed into the station’s wall.
“I knew it wasn’t a bomb,” he said.
He understood that the train must have been traveling considerably faster than the 10 mph limit for entering the station.
“I would say at least 30 miles an hour,” Blaine said. “It had to have jumped at least 5 feet.”
He noted that the train had been on Track 5, which he had walked past just 30 seconds before. He now saw a man in a blue suit with a serious head wound try to stand only to collapse and try again to rise, only to collapse again.
Blaine moved to help the man, but others got there ahead of him. Blaine started toward the wrecked train and stepped over something, only to realize it was a brown haired young woman who was sprawled on the platform with catastrophic injuries. He had not witnessed such trauma since his time as a New York City cop, when his partner was killed in East Harlem. But he understood she was beyond saving.
“Blood under her head, she wasn’t breathing,” he would recall. “She was gone.”
He saw that seemingly everybody who was not injured was doing all they could to assist the 114 people who were. More debris threatened to come down, but rather than seek safety, people were unhesitatingly risking serious injury themselves for the sake of strangers.
Here was magnificence in the face of horror, as was witnessed on a monumental scale when it was terrorism just across the Hudson River, at the World Trade Center on 9/11, 15 years and 18 days before.
“Just beautiful, people running to help,” Blaine said of the aftermath of Thursday’s wreck. “When something happens, we get down to it to help the best we can. Everybody was trying to help.”
Beautiful indeed. America the Beautiful in all its many manifestations, not divided as it has too often seemed of late, but suddenly one.
“Everybody,” Blaine said. “Every creed and color.”
Somebody asked about the engineer who had been running the train. Blaine went with a New Jersey Transit official and peered up into the control cab at the end of the train. He could see the blue shirt of the engineer, who appeared slumped over.
“Deceased,” the official decided.
But engineer Tom Gallagher was alive when he was extracted and proved to be in good enough condition to be released from the hospital later in the day. Blaine remained at the station, where he had arrived at Track 2 just before the wreck. He figured aloud that if his fellow engineer had become incapacitated or dozed off, that should have triggered a standard device known as an alerter, which begins to beep, beep, beep with increasing volume if the person at the controls is idle for more than 25 seconds. The engineer then has 15 seconds to respond before the alerter stops the train.
This train was being pushed by a locomotive at the back, with the engineer in a “control cab” in the front. The cab may not have been equipped with an alerter, as was the case in the 2013 crash of a New York commuter train that killed four.
The alerter may have been beeping in the locomotive but not in the cab with the engineer.
Or the engineer may have simply been going too fast at the point of the journey that demands the most care and attention. Or there may have been some kind of mechanical trouble. Blaine has been an engineer for 19 of his 53 years, and he figured he would likely have noticed the grating sound of brakes had they been applied in the moment before the big boom.
“I’m pretty good at hearing it,” he said. “We’re trained to.”
Whatever happened with the engineer or with the train’s mechanics, whether or not an alerter was in the cab, however the train came to be going that fast when it should have eased to a stop, one thing seems indisputable: The accident would not have occurred if New Jersey Transit was equipped with a Positive Train Control system such as the U.S Congress mandated for all railways with the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, after a crash involving a Metrolink train killed 28 in Southern California.
PTC simply halts a train if it exceeds a speed restriction or runs a red signal. That includes when the train is arriving at its destination. No matter what the operator is or is not doing.
The deadline was supposed to be January 2016, but railroads begged for more time late last year. New Jersey Transit said it might otherwise have to shut down. Congress extended the deadline nationwide until 2018.
But in the meantime, Metrolink finished putting PTC in place systemwide over a year ago. A Metrolink spokeswoman Thursday had no doubt what PTC would have done had the New Jersey Transit train been equipped with it that morning.
“It would bring it to a stop,” the spokeswoman said. “Absolutely.”
That would have made all the difference for 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, the woman whom Blaine had seen dead on the platform. She was reported by NBC to have had a child in day care when she was killed by falling debris.
First responders who surveyed the scene afterward were amazed that she was the lone fatality considering the extent of the damage at the height of rush hour.
But there almost certainly would have been no deaths at all with PTC. The minutes of a May 2016 meeting of the New Jersey Transit board indicate that the railroad is pushing ahead with PTC. But eight years after the initial congressional mandate they are still apparently at least two years from completion. The minutes were submitted along with a cover letter to the man who is ultimately in charge, and therefore ultimately responsible.
“Dear Governor Christie,” the letter begins.
On Thursday afternoon, Chris Christie visited the crash scene along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was there because this particular train had originated in his state. Christie reminded everybody that he was once a U.S. attorney and had a “background in law enforcement.” He noted that he had learned to hold off making conclusions until the investigation was complete.
“Let law enforcement do its job,” Christie said.
One question is why Christie had not been doing his own job and pushing for quicker installation of PTC. He has instead been running around the country, first to promote himself as a presidential candidate and now pushing for Donald Trump. Christie has been deriding all that is PC when he should have been worried about PTC, among other important state responsibilities that require actual attention and work.
The Christie administration’s most notable effort in transportation has been the 2013 lane closures for five days at the George Washington Bridge in an act of political vengeance against the Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for not supporting Christie for reelection. It was hard to listen to Christie extoll first responders on Thursday and not remember that he is said to have stood with his flunky, David Wildstein, at Ground Zero during the memorial for the 12th anniversary of 9/11 and laugh about not returning Sokolich’s frantic calls. Sokolich had been worried that the traffic jams resulting from the lane closures would prove a threat to public safety in delaying cops and firefighters and paramedics from responding to emergencies.
Too bad there was no political payback to be had in PTC.
Christie and Cuomo both spoke outside the Hoboken station of the remarkable spirit extraordinary ordinary people had once again shown amid catastrophe. But as we have proven again and again, we do not need politicians to lead us during attacks such as 9/11 or catastrophes such as the train wreck in Hoboken. We follow what is good in ourselves, and that is what leads us to come together and help each other even if it means placing ourselves at great risk.
In an ideal nation, politicians would touch the good in us and help bring us together between horrors. They should at least worry less about promoting themselves and concentrate more on doing what we elect them to do in the first place.
In other words, do their jobs.
We need them to stop the nonsense and take their proper part in what extraordinary ordinary people in Hoboken reminded us on Thursday is truly America the Beautiful.
And say a prayer for Fabiola Bittar de Kroon and her family.