Federal investigators say they've discovered a fracture on one of the rails where a Metro-North train derailed and struck another train Friday night, sending 72 people to the hospital.
They're also inspecting the individual train cars, combing the length of the tracks near the accident site, analyzing maintenance records and inspecting the last train to pass over that section of the track before the crash in the hopes of gleaning information on what caused the Grand Central Station-bound train to derail and sideswipe an eastbound train, the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday afternoon.
New Haven Line service east of Fairfield -- and Amtrak's service between New York and Boston -- was suspended in the wake of the crash, and authorities said it could take two weeks or more before service resumes. The investigation is expected to run from seven to 10 days, the NTSB's Earl Weener said, and only after the investigation is complete can Metro-North crews begin the labor-intensive process of repairing the rails and the overhead catenary wires that provide power to the trains.
"When the NTSB has concluded the on-site phase of its investigation, Metro-North will begin to remove the damaged rail cars and remaining debris," Howard Permut, Metro-North's president, said in a statement Saturday afternoon. "This process requires specialized, heavy equipment that will be in place by tomorrow. Only after the damaged train cars have been removed can Metro-North begin the work of rebuilding the damaged tracks and overhead wires. It is a significant undertaking that could take days to complete."
Government officials who toured the wreckage of twisted metal Saturday said they stared at the grisly scene in disbelief that no one had been killed.
After one of the two trains involved in the accident derailed, it plowed through tons of gravel, tearing up metal into shreds of ribbon. The NTSB said the fracture discovered by inspectors is on the surface of the metal at a rail joint, and witnesses also mentioned the damage. The agency has not said the fracture was the cause of the derailment; it's one of dozens of pieces of evidence investigators are looking at, and authorities will not make a conclusion on the cause of the accident until the investigation is complete, at the earliest.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he saw "tons of metal tossed around like toy things" and called the damage "absolutely staggering."
"I can say we are fortunate that even more injuries were not the result of this very tragic and unfortunate accident," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal credited the investment in infrastructure and the newly-constructed cars for saving lives and more injuries.
The cars involved in the crash are some of the latest state-of-the-art ones available, said Earl Weener, a member with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"This is the first time a car like this has been involved in this kind of accident; by all appearances, they responded well," Weener said.
While the cars are the newer M8 models introduced in 2011, the tracks on sections of the New Haven Line are old-fashioned jointed rails, said Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees.
The older jointed rails are bolted together, he said, and they're prone to cracking. Jointed rails are generally used on lower-speed lines and are responsible for rhythmic clicking sound associated with older trains. The rest of the Metro-North system -- and most modern railroads -- use ribbon rail, also known as continuously welded rail, Bottalico said.
"In my opinion, it's definitely track-related," Bottalico said of the derailment, calling the jointed tracks "a more antiquated rail system."
Weener and his crew arrived at the scene just outside Bridgeport around 9 a.m. Saturday and began gathering "perishable" evidence to figure out the cause of the crash that derailed the eastbound Metro-North train heading from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven around 6:10 p.m. Friday.
The train collided with a westbound train traveling from New Haven to Grand Central on an adjacent track, hurling some cars from the second train off the tracks. The two trains were carrying about 700 passengers.
MULTIPRONGED FOCUS IN INVESTIGATION
The NTSB, which investigates major transportation accidents in the U.S., put together a multidisciplinary team to study the Metro-North accident.
The probe is initially focusing on braking system performance, the conditions of wheels and cars, signaling information and the general condition of the track and rail bed will be studied, Weener said.
The train crews will also be interviewed to see how they "behaved and how they operated the train," Weener said, to determine if anything affected their performance. Bottalico said he'd spoken to the train's engineers, who told him the train was going about 70 miles per hour when it derailed, well within the normal, safe range for the line.
Data recorders inside the trains have already been retrieved and the information has been digitally sent to NTSB offices in Washington for evaluation, Weener said.
At St. Vincent's Hospital, six patients -- one of them critical -- had been admitted and remain hospitalized, Malloy said. Bridgeport Hospital still had two critical patients under its care. Among the injured was Helen Jenkins, a conductor who Bottalico said was "thrown through the train pretty badly" and suffered extensive injuries. An engineer also suffered a broken wrist, Bottalico said.
The Northeast corridor remains shut down, with no specific timeline for reopening though officials said they hope to open the tracks -- which are also used by Amtrak -- by Monday. Amtrak has indefinitely suspended service from Boston to New York; Metro-North New Haven line service from South Norwalk to New Haven also remained shut down Saturday.
"I think this is going to be with us for a number of days," Malloy said of the service suspensions.
"A lot of people rely on this, and we've got to get this reconnected as soon as possible," Finch said.
Officials are in the midst of working out an alternate transportation plan that could take commuters to the nearest Metro-North station. In the meantime, Malloy advised commuters to make alternate plans.
The crash happened at a section of the system where only two of the four tracks have been operable due to long-term construction, Malloy said.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy noted that the region has been rocked by disasters natural, man-made and mechanical in recent months.
"People have to be patient," Murphy said. "We want to get this investigation right, whether it takes one day or several days. We want to know what happened here."
With The Associated Press