Any other day, Lori Wright might have just waited. But on the morning of Jan. 30, 1996, Wright had a business meeting in Manhattan and her westbound LIRR train had been stuck going on 15 minutes at Syosset station without explanation.

Wright got off, figuring she'd catch the next Manhattan-bound train that was scheduled to arrive across the platform any minute. Instead, the Huntington Station resident found herself dangling waist-deep in the gap between the platform and the train, her black leather briefcase the only thing that saved her from falling to the tracks.

Wright did not know at the time, but on that day, she had become the third person in less than 90 minutes to fall into a gap at the dangerously curved Syosset station.

"I took one step off and went down," said Wright, 41, who sustained a deep gash in her right leg from the fall. "It was like 'boom,' I never expected it."

As passengers hoisted Wright to safety, the ambulance carrying Richard Querni of Bayville -- the second person to fall into a gap that morning -- was still in the parking lot.

It was later in the same hospital hallway where Querni and Wright were each awaiting treatment that the two gap victims first learned about each other. At the time, the two had no idea that Lisa Rispoli of Oyster Bay, also had slipped into a gap and hurt her leg at the Syosset station earlier that morning on her way to Manhattan.

Wright went on to sue the Long Island Rail Road for $1 million; Querni, 64, who broke his back in the fall, sued for $10 million. Both Querni and Wright have since settled their LIRR suits. Under an agreement, Querni is not permitted to disclose the amount of his settlement. Wright declined to disclose her settlement amount.

History of falls

With its sharply curving platforms, the Syosset station has a long history of wide gaps -- Querni fell through a space that measured between 13 and 18 inches, according to depositions from his lawsuit. Since 1989, at least 39 people have fallen into the gap at that station, court records show. By 1996, the LIRR had already placed a platform conductor to patrol at Syosset every day during the morning rush to help passengers navigate the large gaps. Until mid-November, when patrols were added at five stations, it was the only station where such an arrangement existed.

While the LIRR acknowledged Querni and Wright's falls, railroad officials and Metropolitan Transportation Authority police attributed the incidents to the icy conditions of that morning.

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The MTA police documented Rispoli's fall but did not state a cause.

The LIRR maintained in affidavits in Querni's suit that his fall "was produced by the icy condition on the platform, not because of the existence of space between the train and the platform."

Similarly, the MTA police official who filled out Wright's accident report said she "slipped on the yellow strip which was icy."

"People were slipping and sliding all over the place," said the platform conductor, Michael Thiele, in a deposition for Querni's lawsuit. " ... It was almost impossible to walk."

Thiele did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Court records, however, state that Thiele began his day at 5:30 a.m. It was a gray, frosty morning, and a thin layer of black ice coated much of the platforms.

A half-hour into Thiele's shift, he called LIRR officials in Jamaica from a pay phone at the station, asking for public announcements about the icy conditions and a maintenance worker to sand and salt the platform, court records show.

About the same time, Rispoli, 43, wearing thick-soled Timberland boots, was leaving her home in Oyster Bay to make the 6:26 a.m. train to Penn Station.

As she stepped onto the train -- and across what she described in a letter to LIRR officials two weeks later as a 15-inch gap -- Rispoli slipped on the ice and into the breach up to her elbows, becoming the day's first victim. Passengers lifted her back onto the platform. "I was standing there, trying to figure out what happened," Rispoli said. "My leg was really burning. My tights were ripped."

Rispoli, credits her long wool coat with preventing her from slipping through to the tracks below and possibly receiving graver injuries.

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"It went up [on both sides] and saved me," she said. "It gave me the width."

In the weeks following, Rispoli -- whose wound required several stitches -- called and wrote to the LIRR several times to tell them about her fall. Eventually, the railroad reimbursed her for the cost of her suit and stockings.

Rispoli was surprised to learn recently through a Newsday reporter that there were two others who fell into a gap as she did on that same day.

Connecting the cases

Meanwhile, it was Querni's wife, Yolanda, who was at Syosset hospital with him on the morning of his fall who first found out about Wright. Yolanda Querni overheard a hospital employee mention that another gap victim from the train station had come in for treatment. She went over to where Wright lay with bandages on her leg.

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"I was curious," Yolanda Querni said. "I reported back to my husband, who was stretched out on a gurney."

Querni had fallen getting on the train at 7:25 a.m., causing Wright's delay. Wright fell less than 20 minutes later, at 7:43 a.m.

The morning of his fall, Querni specifically wore rubber-soled shoes with traction, he said. And he held onto the doorway of the train to steady himself as he stepped carefully over the space.

"My trailing foot slipped out," Querni said, describing how his whole body slipped, sideways, through the gap. "I twisted, then got wedged momentarily, hip to hip between the train and the platform, then I went right through."

He said his fall fractured a vertebrae in his back, broke several ribs, herniated a disc and left him with permanent nerve damage in his foot. His injuries were documented in court papers based on medical records.

Even after two subsequent back surgeries, Querni says he is in constant pain and has a permanent limp.

Immediately after her fall, Wright was treated for a soft tissue injury to her leg. Three weeks after the accident, Wright said she developed a deep tissue infection in the wound. "In bad weather, my leg still hurts," she said.

At about 9 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 30, 1996, more than an hour after Wright had fallen into the gap, court records show that railroad employees arrived to de-ice the Syosset platform.