Cops: Woman choked by clothing on Lindenhurst LIRR escalator

Long Island Rail Road commuters react to the news that an elderly woman fell to her death from a platform escalator in Lindenhurst. Videojournalist: Ellen Yan (March 13, 2012)

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The 88-year-old woman who died on a Long Island Rail Road escalator was choked to death by her clothing when it became entangled in the moving stairs, police said Wednesday night.

Irene Bernatzky tripped and fell Tuesday afternoon while traveling on the upward escalator serving the Lindenhurst station platform, a source close to the investigation said, adding that her clothes got caught in the treading of the machine, putting pressure on her neck.

It was not known what piece of Bernatzky's clothing got entangled or caused her asphyxiation.

When she reached the landing, a witness pressed the emergency stop button on the escalator, the source said adding that Bernatzky was initially conscious, but soon died at the scene.

LIRR spokesman Sam Zambuto confirmed Wednesday night that a preliminary investigation and autopsy concluded that Bernatzky was asphyxiated.

Yesterday morning, about a dozen investigators and workers gathered around the escalator, which was put out of service and closed off with boards, police tape and orange cones. Workers removed panels from the escalator and closely inspected the contraption's inner-workings.

Zambuto said the escalator -- the only one at the station -- was last inspected in February after a "minor repair."

At her Lindenhurst home Wednesday, Bernatzky's son Kenneth said his mother was on her way to Manhattan to visit her daughter when she died. He said his mother lived with him and would have turned 89 Thursday.

Although it remained unclear whether the three-story escalator malfunctioned in any way, several LIRR regulars at Lindenhurst said Wednesday that the escalator has long been a source of trouble. Several riders said one of the handrails would intermittently stall or "jerk" out of synch with the moving steps.

Raphael Evora, 51, of Lindenhurst, said that when he last used the station a few days before Bernatzky's death, one handrail was not moving at all, while the other one was.

"I've never seen that before at any station," said Evora, 51.

LIRR maintenance and repair logs for the escalator show that it was serviced 27 times in 2011, including on Nov. 22 in response to a report of the "right handrail not moving." A technician found it functioning properly, checked both rails to make sure they operating properly, and returned it to service.

The escalator was serviced four times this year before the accident, including for the replacement of "broken comb plates."

Zambuto noted that the escalator, which was installed in 1994, was once slated to be replaced between 2008 and 2013, but "older escalators were prioritized due to limited funding." He said the service time for an escalator ranges from 20 to 25 years.

Lindenhurst Village Mayor Thomas Brennan said villagers have long complained about problems with the escalator, and that the response from the MTA has been to direct riders to use Babylon station instead.

"It's a very tragic accident," Brennan said of Bernatzky's death. "My heart goes out to the family."

With Kery Murakami

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