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Long IslandTransportation

Riders are split over the blame

Eric Bell wants to know why it took decades for the Long Island Rail Road to do something about the gaps between trains and platforms that led to hundreds of falls.

"Did it have to accumulate to a point where they were forced to do something about it?" asked Bell, 37, of Huntington, at the Huntington train station.

LIRR commuters interviewed Friday disagreed about whether the railroad should bear the brunt of the blame for what is now the No. 1 cause of accidents for riders.

On the 6:57 a.m. train out of Port Jefferson, four riders were split on the topic and laughed when they heard gap warnings played over the loudspeakers.

"I think people should take more responsibility for their own drunken acts," said Nadia Hafeez, of Port Jefferson, referring to the August gap-related death of a teenager.

Lori Schiaffino, 43, of Huntington, disagreed and placed the blame on the LIRR. "There is no reason they can't design a train that, when the train stops, a platform comes out," Schiaffino said.

An estimated 38 percent of the Long Island Rail Road's platforms have problem gaps, and they will be reduced by the spring of next year, LIRR officials revealed Thursday. Since 1995, the LIRR has logged 882 gap incidents, according to records obtained and analyzed by Newsday.

A Newsday investigation revealed that no railroadwide repair effort was undertaken until after the death of Natalie Smead, 18, a tourist from Minnesota who fell through a gap at the Woodside station and crawled into the path of an oncoming train. Her blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

Simon Sacks, 38, of Huntington Station, said the LIRR should have made changes the first time somebody fell through a gap years ago.

"They obviously didn't act in a reasonable time," Sacks said. "It looks like they could have prevented incidents from occurring and that's the big shame -- the failure to prevent."

Diane Pirozzi, 61, of Belle Terre, thought crowded conditions can lead to accidents. "You get stuck in a wave of people sometimes, and if you are a tourist, for example, you may not realize it," she said.

Paul Nash, 58, of Port Jefferson Station, said ultimately it's the rider's responsibility to board safely. "If you have a problem, ask for help," Nash said. "Accidents happen, but do you want to pay too much money for what is a small safety measure?"

Sitting in the waiting area at the Babylon station in front of a "Watch the Gap" poster, Maria Soos said people should stop placing the blame on the railroad.

"We can't wait for somebody to fix everything for us," said Soos, 70, of Bay Shore. "People aren't paying .attention."

For years, Gini Spinelli, 67, of Valley Stream, has watched nervously as elderly riders and people with young children have negotiated gaps. Customers, she said, shouldn't be put in harm's way. "I am amazed," Spinelli said at the Babylon station. "They knew about it and they weren't doing anything. That shouldn't be."

Had the railroad taken precautionary measures, Eric Witherspoon's cousin would not have fallen through a gap several months ago and hurt her back, he said. She now has a pending lawsuit against the railroad, he said.

"They're scrambling now," said Witherspoon, 37, of Richmond Hill, at the Babylon station. "But if they would've done this 10 years ago, might have never died and my cousin definitely wouldn't have injured herself."

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