Federal investigators have begun the long process of uncovering why a New Jersey commuter train crashed into a Hoboken station — retrieving a “black box” event recorder and taking blood and urine samples from the train’s engineer, officials said Friday.
But poor weather and uncertain safety conditions have slowed the probe into the morning rush-hour accident that killed one person and injured more than 100.
National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said it could take “a day or two” before investigators even gain access to the full crash site.
“All of our teams are working around the clock, and we’re gathering information and facts that will determine what caused this accident so we can prevent it from happening again,” Dinh-Zarr said. “We will stay here as long as it takes.”
At about 8:45 a.m. Thursday, the NJ Transit train carrying 250 people failed to slow down as it approached the final stop in its run, crashing through a protective barrier and barreling through a station concourse.
The force of the impact toppled support beams, mangled station structures, and sent a canopy roof crashing down. Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken, the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, was killed in the collapse.
Officials said 114 others were injured, including the train’s engineer, Thomas Gallagher, 48, of Morris Plains, New Jersey, a 29-year employee who has since been released from the hospital.
Dinh-Zarr said Friday investigators have been “in touch” with Gallagher and other members of the train crew, but have not formally interviewed them yet.
A man who identified himself as Gallagher’s father told WNBC-TV that his son was a dedicated employee who had worked for NJ Transit in various positions since he was 19. “We’re very upset with this whole matter,” he said.
Complicating the investigation are the conditions at the ravaged station, where the collapsed canopy has still not been removed from the train, and where concerns about airborne asbestos remain.
“Because of the asbestos, because of the unsettled structures that I’m unsure about, I’m not allowing anybody to go in there,” said lead NTSB investigator James Southworth, adding that the evidence in the train is “nonperishable.”
“It takes a very quick minute, maybe, for this to happen. And it takes quite some time to unravel,” Southworth said.
Investigators have been able to access the locomotive at the rear of the four-car train and retrieve the black box inside it, but have not been able to download the information on it. NTSB officials sent the box to its manufacturer in Kentucky for assistance.
That box — and another located in the front control car where the engineer sat — should have information about the train’s speed, distance traveled, throttle input, brake application and break performance, Dinh-Zarr said.
The NTSB will also review video recordings from security cameras at the station and cameras mounted on the train, facing outward. Dinh-Zarr said Friday’s rain was also “a bit of a hindrance.”
“Obviously as we have structural concerns. We have environmental concerns. We are checking the air quality. Checking during a thunderstorm is not the ideal conditions,” she said. “This doesn’t mean we’re standing around doing nothing. There is much to be done, even without access to those cars at the moment.”
NTSB officials said they have begun going through relevant records, including the train’s maintenance history, and Gallagher’s training, certification and personnel record. Investigators have also taken possession of his personal electronic devices.
Blood and urine samples from Gallagher were sent to a lab in Oklahoma City for toxicology testing that will include a “wide range” of tests, such as prescription and nonprescription drugs.
Dinh-Zarr said getting those results back “will take a while.”
This story was reported by Laura Albanese, Sarah Armaghan, Vincent Barone, Alfonso A. Castillo, Chau Lam and Ivan Pereira. It was written by Castillo.