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LIRR rider says instinct was to 'grab my kids, to get to the closest exit'

Fire departments respond to the Long Island Rail

Fire departments respond to the Long Island Rail Road train crash in Westbury on Tuesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

After two Long Island Rail Road trains struck a vehicle in Westbury on Tuesday night, killing the vehicle’s three occupants and partially derailing the westbound train, the Westbury Fire Department evacuated riders from the damaged elevated train by having them climb down ladders, bringing them to the bottom of the hill.

An eastbound train first struck the vehicle about 7:20 p.m., according to officials, pushing it into the path of the westbound train, which struck it, traveled about half a mile and crashed into the concrete platform at the Westbury station.

It was there that Nina Nithnikone, 32, of Coram, picked up her children Aidon, 6, and Aja, 3, and headed toward the door.

She felt a bump and saw  "flames come up on the side,” she said. “We felt the heat coming in. My first instinct was to grab my kids, to get to the closest exit.” Then she felt a second hit — she thinks it was the train hitting the platform — and “my kids flew out of my arms.”

The train came to a stop, and the crying children were calmed.

“It was their first time on the train. They were scared,” Nithnikone said.

Westbury Fire Chief Kenneth Gass and his firefighters led the evacuation effort, directing passengers from the back of the train and from the damaged first and second cars to climb down ladders from the third and fourth cars.

“Civilians disembarking the trains did so orderly and they were a great help to all emergency services involved,” he said.

As people exited, firefighters and EMTs asked if they were injured; if they were, they sent them to a triage area. Seven were sent to the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries, officials said.

It took close to an hour and a half to remove everyone from the train, Gass said.

Seventeen other fire departments responded with mutual aid, he said.

Nithnikone said first responders carried her children off the train, then she followed down the ladder and into an ambulance to keep warm before heading into a taxi building to await shuttles.

“They were great, very attentive, gave blankets to my kids to keep them warm,” she said.

Once first responders evacuated the westbound train, they moved onto the eastbound train, where passengers were directed to stay on the train to stay warm, Gass said.

“They weren’t in any danger. They were just stuck there,” he said.

Passengers on the eastbound train got off at the grade crossing on School Street, Gass said, and onto buses that shuttled them to nearby train stations.

Gass said his department trains regularly and does drills with the MTA, but the hill made this evacuation unlike any other real-life rescues he has encountered.

LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said, “MTA trains regularly with joint exercises throughout the island on this type of thing … we do preparedness drills regularly with our local partners,” including EMS, fire and police agencies.

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