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Vehicle hit by LIRR trains was driving away from previous crash, witness told police

On Wednesday, Nassau County police said a witness told police that the vehicle involved in the Long Island Rail Road crash Tuesday evening had fled the scene of a minor car crash moments before it attempted to go around a lowered railroad gate in Westbury. Credit: Newsday

This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Stefanie Dazio, Deon J. Hampton, Antonio Planas, David M. Schwartz and Rachel Uda. It was written by Brodsky and Castillo.

The driver of a vehicle that caused a horrific Long Island Rail Road crash Tuesday evening, killing all three occupants, had fled the scene of another crash seconds before attempting to go around a railroad gate in Westbury and colliding with two trains, a witness told law enforcement at the scene.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder spoke about the moments before the collision and provided other details about the train derailment during a news conference Wednesday at Nassau University Medical Center, where seven patients were treated.

The vehicle, heading south on School Street around 7:20 p.m., had just been in a minor auto accident before fleeing the scene and being struck by a slow-moving eastbound train, Ryder said. The car then “spun out” and was hit again by a westbound train moving at “full” speed, Ryder said, relaying information from the driver of the other vehicle involved in the auto accident.

"The witness said that individual was involved in an accident and then went around the gate,” Ryder said.

The identifications of the deceased driver and the vehicle's occupants is pending as the crash destroyed the vehicle, leaving only parts of the engine intact, Ryder said.

The vehicle was struck first by eastbound LIRR train No. 1260, carrying about 200 passengers, which left Penn Station at 6:35 p.m., with a final destination in Hicksville. Only seconds after the collision, the same vehicle was struck by westbound LIRR train No. 2605 carrying about 800 passengers, which left Ronkonkoma at 6:36 p.m. heading for Penn Station.

The vehicle was “sandwiched” between the trains and erupted into a fireball, killing its occupants, Ryder said. After the collision, the westbound train derailed and traveled about 800 feet before crashing into the concrete platform at the Westbury station, sending chunks of concrete into the air.

"We cannot repeat this enough: Please do not try to beat the train," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said. "There is nothing so important. And I think we saw that with a very stark clarity [Tuesday] night."

Despite damage to at least 200 feet of track and 300 feet of platform, the LIRR restored some service through the accident scene by Wednesday morning, but canceled about a dozen trains during both the morning and evening commutes.

In between rush hours, crews, using heavy construction equipment, worked to move the two derailed train cars back onto the tracks so they could be cleared away and workers could assess and repair the damage to the tracks.

The mangled train cars remained at the site Wednesday evening, wedged against the northern platform and blocking one track while commuters boarded trains from the south side of the Westbury station.

LIRR president Phillip Eng said he was “very proud” that the railroad was able to help get thousands of people to work on the affected branches.

“Our men and women worked tirelessly through the evening,” said Eng, who detailed that the crossing gates were down and "the lights were flashing” at the time of the crash.

“It is a tragic situation,” Eng said. “Why folks try to risk their lives and other people’s lives perhaps to save a few minutes is one I can’t answer.”

The unidentified engineer of the westbound train was praised for his heroics Wednesday.

With concrete and metal rebar spiraling into the front of the train, the engineer raced toward the back of the cab, protecting a passenger, Ryder said. If the engineer had not fled toward the rear, the engineer would have been killed, Ryder said.

“The engineer did a great job," Ryder said. "Obviously, he saw the impact when he hit the platform. He ran toward the rear away from it, almost like a movie scene coming through the front. And there was also a civilian that he pushed out of the way."

Nassau police later rescued both the engineer and the other passenger, who were trapped in the derailed train, Ryder said.

Seven passengers on the westbound train were taken to NUMC with ailments that were not life-threatening, including internal bleeding and spinal injuries, said Dr. Kelley Sookraj, a trauma surgeon. Three patients were admitted.

"They did sustain significant injuries," Sookraj said. "But thankfully they are all doing well and are currently stable."

Another train passenger suffered a seizure, with the rest sustaining minor injuries, said Dr. Anthony Boutin, NUMC's chief medical officer. In addition, a 15-year-old girl was taken to NYU Winthrop Hospital. All of the passengers, officials said, are expected to survive.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police is the lead investigatory agency for the crash, spokesman Aaron Donovan said. The victims' identities will be released after notification of their next of kin, an MTA official said.

Despite calls from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Curran to have the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the crash, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said the agency was monitoring the crash, but was not planning to investigate. "It is impossible to investigate every highway crash or railroad accident," Williams said.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it is investigating the accident. Representatives from Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office said the probe had been escalated to the FRA’s headquarters, as opposed to regional offices, because of the number of fatalities involved.

At the crash scene during the Wednesday morning rush, commuters wove past yellow police tape dangling from the platform entrance and were warned that the Huntington/Port Jefferson lines were running about an hour late. Nearby, members of the regional American Red Cross handed out water bottles, coffee and bananas to MTA, MTA Police and LIRR personnel.

Dorrie Kerzner, 59, of Hicksville, was supposed to catch the 7:26 a.m. train to Penn Station but instead opted to drive. She called the delays “very unfortunate” but asked everyone to remember the larger picture.

"We are all inconvenienced, but real people lost their lives," Kerzner said. "I feel bad about that and the families involved."

Recent major train accidents

  • Jan. 9, 2017: A motorist from Holtsville is killed when she swerves her car around a down crossing gate arm as a nonpassenger Long Island Rail Road train approaches near Brentwood.
  • Jan. 4, 2017: A Brooklyn-bound Far Rockaway LIRR train crashes through a bumping block at the end of the tracks at Atlantic Terminal, injuring more than 100 passengers, but none seriously.
  • Oct. 8, 2016: An eastbound LIRR work train moves into the path of a Huntington-bound passenger train just east of New Hyde Park, injuring 33 people, four of them seriously. Officials said the accident was caused by a track switch left in the wrong position.
  • Sept. 29, 2016: A New Jersey Transit train gathers speed in the moments before it slams into a barrier at the end of tracks at Hoboken Terminal at 21 mph, killing one woman on the platform, and injuring more than 100 others.
  • July 17, 2015: Two passenger trains going in opposite directions sideswipe each other just west of Jamaica station during the evening rush. The LIRR said one engineer failed to obey a stop signal. No injuries were reported.
  • May 12, 2015: Eight passengers are killed and more than 200 others transported to area hospitals after a Northbound Amtrak train derails near Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Feb. 3, 2015: Six people are killed after a Metro-North commuter train strikes a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla that was stopped on the tracks.
  • March 10, 2014: A Metro-North Railroad electrician is fatally struck by a northbound train near milepost 3.2 at Control Point 3 interlocking in Manhattan. The electrician was one of three employees attempting to re-energize tracks that had been out of service for maintenance.
  • Dec. 1, 2013: A Metro-North commuter train rounding a riverside curve about 100 feet north of the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx derails, killing four passengers and injuring more than 70. The train’s engineer said he nodded off or fell into a daze at the controls just before taking the 30 mph curve at 82 mph.
  • June 17, 2013: A 10-car Hempstead-bound train derails just after leaving the Penn Station platform. The accident caused massive rush-hour delays, and forced the evacuation of about 800 people from the train. There were no injuries.
  • June 4, 2013: Two LIRR work trains collide just west of Hicksville, injuring two railroad employees, and causing one of the trains to derail.

Source: Newsday research

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