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NTSB: Engineer said he went 10 mph into Hoboken station

Wreckage at the Hoboken, N.J. rail station is

Wreckage at the Hoboken, N.J. rail station is seen in this Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 photo provided by a passenger who was on the train when it crashed. Credit: AP

One of the two event recorders on the New Jersey commuter train that plowed into the Hoboken Terminal wasn’t functioning at the time of the crash, federal investigators said Sunday, while also revealing that the engineer said he had no memory of the deadly wreck.

Thomas Gallagher, 48, of Morris Plains, New Jersey, told investigators he remembered the train was traveling at 10 mph as it pulled into the station at the height of rush hour Thursday, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, during a Sunday news conference.

While the event recorder recovered from the rear locomotive was not working, a second recorder remains buried under steel I-beams, concrete slabs and glass skylights.

Jim Southworth, NTSB’s investigator-in-charge, said federal law requires a functional event recorder to be in the front car. Dinh-Zarr said she remains hopeful that the other recorder, from cars built in the 2000s, will yield information including the train speed, distance traveled, throttle input, brake application and brake performance.

About 8:45 a.m. Thursday, the NJ Transit train carrying 250 people failed to slow as it approached Hoboken Terminal, 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 girl, was killed in the collapse. Officials said 114 others were injured, including Gallagher.

Just before the crash, Gallagher looked at his watch and found the train was about six minutes late, Dinh-Zarr said. She said he blew the horn and looked at the speedometer.

“The engineer says he has no memory of the accident. He remembers waking up on the floor of the cab,” Dinh-Zarr said.

While the engineer told investigators he remembers the train going 10 miles per hour, an NTSB analysis determined that the train could have safely navigated the curve approaching the accident area at speeds up to 43 mph, Dinh-Zarr said Sunday. The speed limit for that curve is 30 mph.

In addition, the conductor of the train told investigators he didn’t notice the train speeding, she said. He told investigators the cars were so crowded he couldn’t collect tickets because there were four cars instead of the usual five.

Dinh-Zarr declined to speculate whether the train could have been traveling at 10 miles per hour.

“We want to get in and get the exact speed of the train,” she said of recovering the second box. “It’s unclear right now what the speed was. So we won’t know until we actually get that information.”

Workers took their first steps to clearing debris on Saturday at 1 p.m. when environmental testing revealed that the accident area was safe, Dinh-Zarr said. The demolition of the wreckage around the train will continue 24 hours a day until it’s complete.

“Contractors must methodically move all of the broken and damaged canopy to minimize the damage to the accident scene and preserve the evidence for our investigation,” she said.

She described the beams as “like a dangerous version of pick-up sticks.”

Also on Saturday, NTSB recording experts worked with manufacturers to access the data from the 1995 recorder and discovered that it was not functioning. Signal abnormalities have been ruled out and inspectors completed a walking tour of the track and found nothing that would have affected the train’s performance, the NTSB said.

Investigators also collected video from other trains at Hoboken Terminal to see what those cameras may have captured, NTSB said.

Even before the crash, federal rail officials had been looking at New Jersey Transit’s safety record, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. An audit by the Federal Railroad Administration that began in June found more than 180 safety violations since 2011, including employee drug and alcohol use and violations of railroad operating rules or practices.

NJ Transit paid more than $500,000 to settle 183 safety violations since 2011, the news agency reported. The settlement payments include about $70,000 for more than a dozen safety violations in 2014 and 2015.

Federal data also showed that NJ Transit trains have been involved in more than 150 accidents that caused more than $4.8 million in damage to tracks or equipment since that year, according to The Associated Press.

At the news conference Sunday, Dinh-Zarr would not comment on the violations.

As part of their investigation, 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 also have taken possession of his personal electronic devices. Blood and urine samples taken from the engineer after the crash await lab results.

Gallagher was originally hired by NJ Transit as a part-time ticket collector in 1987 and became a full-time employee in 1991. He became a qualified engineer in 2000.

Dinh-Zarr said he went on duty at 6:46 a.m. Thursday.

“He said he felt fully rested upon arrival at work. He stated that his cell phone was stored and turned off in his personal backpack, which is still located in the cab of the control car,” she said. “Prior to departure, he said he was successfully able to conduct the required brake test.”

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