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How repair crews got LIRR running after deadly Westbury crash

After service is fully restored, a crew member

After service is fully restored, a crew member on Friday watches a train pass the School Street crossing, where the crash happened.     Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The phone call came about 7:30 p.m., and Randolph Michel hustled into his Hyundai Sonata.

An LIRR worker for 18 years, Michel knows there’s only one reaction to news that two trains had struck a car crossing the tracks, killing the passengers, derailing one train and sending it crashing into the station platform.

“Get up and get going,” he said.

Calls like that fanned out across Long Island and beyond Tuesday night as LIRR repair crews were marshaled into duty to perform triage on the trains, tracks, third rail and platform at the Westbury train station and School Street crossing.

Working for more than 40 hours, through often-freezing temperatures, the crews removed the damaged pair of rail cars, replaced about 225 feet of twisted track and stretches of third rail, and repaired a slew of signal and electrical components — all in time to restore nearly full service for Thursday evening’s rush hour.

On Friday, about 40 of the workers gathered by the School Street railroad gates for a group photo. As trains whizzed by in either direction, you could see a bit of pride in their faces.

When the crews initially arrived Tuesday evening, they came upon a chaotic scene with hundreds of passengers being evacuated and a sea of emergency vehicles flashing red and white lights into the chill night air. The human toll did not escape Michel, 40, a welder and train car repairman.

“It was horrific,” said Michel, who lives in the Bronx. “I saw part of the car, the hood or a side panel. You couldn’t tell.”

The crash site was declared a crime scene, so the LIRR crews had to wait before taking action.

They were already assessing. How many wheels were off the track? Where do they need to place the crane to lift the damaged train cars, each of them weighing 125,000 pounds? How much track had to be cut away?

Beginning about 2 a.m., in subfreezing temperatures, they knew they needed to move fast. Michel keeps his gear in his Sonata exactly for such moments — his safety vest, welding goggles and helmet, safety gloves. He had worked on a derailment before but the damage was hardly as extensive.

The first priority in Westbury was making sure the scene was safe for workers, that the third rail was de-energized and the train stable in place. The westbound train car, the one that derailed, was jacked up and pulled, using a separate train engine, back on the rails.

Ken Larsen, an LIRR track foreman from Smithtown, also got a call. He met his track repair crew at their Bethpage headquarters, where they gathered their tools and dispatched trucks to the scene.

His crews replaced the track rails, which were “twisted and burned,” said Larsen, 48.

Big trucks with long mechanical arms, called grapplers, were employed to lift and replace the rails. Workers used acetylene torches to cut the metal rails. Replacement rails were laid down and bolted to the existing rails. Crews also replaced the concrete ties under the rails, Larsen said.

Meanwhile, building and bridges crews removed the damaged sections of the platform, said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union. In the coming months, LIRR crews will rebuild the damaged 112 feet of platform. But there’s still enough platform to handle 10 train cars.

At times, workers said the toughest part was just keeping warm. At one point it started to snow Wednesday. The Red Cross set up a staging area and provided hot coffee, soup and sandwiches. Workers took breaks and warmed up in their trucks.

Early Thursday, the damaged trains were towed away on the track for repairs. The morning had limited westbound rush hour service on the line.

On Friday afternoon, as the LIRR workers gathered alongside their repairs, a silver train approached from the west. The railroad crossing gates at School Street descended, ringing their bells. The train, blowing its horn again and again, raced by.

And the commuting lives of so many thousand Long Islanders continued.

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