In just four pages, the state Public Transportation Safety Board concluded that Natalie Smead became the Long Island Rail Road's first gap-related fatality because she put herself in the path of an oncoming train and because she was drunk.
The board's conclusion so unnerved Najm Meshkati, who has studied railroad safety for more than 20 years, that he said he couldn't sleep. What kept Meshkati up was that the investigation into the 18-year-old's fall into the gap and her subsequent death was reduced to a few concise pages.
Meshkati pointed out that it offered no immediate recommendations, only the possibility of some in the future after a broader study into the gap issue. "They are blaming the victim," said Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. "She is really a victim of system failure. I was very sad when I read this."
While vacationing from Minnesota, Smead had been drinking Red Bull and vodka on the train on Aug. 5 before falling at the Woodside station. Her cousin had told her to stay put, but she scrambled to the other side where an oncoming train struck her. Smead's blood alcohol level was at .23 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving. Smead did not purchase her alcohol from the MTA.
The PTSB report on her death concluded that "the most probable cause of this accident was the young woman's actions that positioned her in the path of an oncoming train. Contributing to the cause of this accident was the young .woman's .alcohol impaired condition."
The PTSB is continuing to explore the gap issue beyond just the Smead .incident, and the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a separate investigation into Smead's death.
Bob Sullivan, a lawyer representing Smead's parents in a legal claim against the LIRR and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said it is "shameful" that the railroad has presented itself as a safe alternative for people who have been drinking, then have the PTSB blame Smead for her death.
Jenna Cohen, president of MADD-New York based in Huntington Station agreed. "The victim did the right thing and took public transportation," she said. "If there wasn't a gap, she wouldn't have fallen through."
Jennifer Nelson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, argued the state can only do so much to protect people riding the trains. The PTSB is an arm of the transportation department that investigates any fatal accidents involving the state's mass transit authorities. "There needs to be a measure of personal responsibility when traveling on public transportation," she said. "We can only do so much to engineer people's safety when they don't take responsibility for their actions."
Nelson said Smead would have been safe if she had followed a conductor's instructions after falling through the gap.
"When she fell, she was uninjured and the railroad gave her specific instructions to stay put," Nelson said. "Because of her impairment, her judgment was lacking. She was instructed to stay still, she was instructed not to move. She pulled away from her friend because of the fact that she was drunk."
Meshkati, however, believes Smead died as a result of railroad officials failing to stop the oncoming train. He said the most disturbing aspect of the report is that there is no questioning of what happened during the 58 seconds between Smead's fall and when she was struck. In the world of train safety, 58 seconds is a long time, Meshkati said.
"They really need to take a hard look at this accident, use it to evaluate and assess their emergency response, decision making, information systems and technological subsystems," Meshkati said.
The PTSB is expected to release its larger gap study in the spring.
A spokesman for the NTSB said the agency is still preparing its own report on Smead's death, which will be released in several months. An NTSB probe typically results in the .release of volumes of information.