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Officials ID woman killed in train crash that hurt 114

Train personnel survey the NJ Transit train that

Train personnel survey the NJ Transit train that crashed into the platform at the Hoboken Terminal on Sept. 29, 2016. At right, Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, was the only person killed in the crash in Hoboken, which also injured more than 100 people. Credit: Getty Images / Pancho Bernascon / LinkedIn

This story was reported by Laura Albanese, Sarah Armaghan, Vincent Barone, Alfonso A. Castillo, Chau Lam and Ivan Pereira. It was written by Castillo.

A New Jersey commuter train traveling at “much too high a rate of speed” barreled through protective barriers and into Hoboken terminal during Thursday’s morning rush, crushing one woman under the wreckage of the destroyed station and injuring 114 others, NJ Governor Chris Christie and other officials said.

The region’s latest deadly commuter railroad accident created chaos, ravaging the Hoboken Terminal and impacting the commutes of thousands of commuters, including many living and working in New York. It also brought renewed calls for railroads, including the LIRR, to implement federally-mandated crash prevention technology that experts said may have prevented the fatal crash.

The accident happened around 8:45 a.m. as a Pascack Valley Line train that originated in Spring Valley approached the last stop of its run at Hoboken Terminal, carrying 250 people.

According to witnesses, the train failed to slow down as it came into the station, instead smashing intoa protective bumper block at the end of the tracks, then continuing until it hit a wall at the station’s customer concourse, officials said.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo told CBS that by “some estimates” the train was going “30, 35 mph” when it entered station. The speed limit at the station is 10 miles per hour, according to the NTSB.

“All of a sudden, everything just stopped really hard,” said Mike Scelzo, of Oradell, NJ, who was in the first car of the train. “It went dark . . . there were things falling from the ceiling. It was just a haze of smoke, everything was dusty and dirty. People started crying, a few started screaming.”

Witnesses described a horrific scene of both first responders and civilians crawling through the crunched first train car to rescue passengers. Images of dazed and bloodied victims leaving the crash scene—some on stretchers—were captured on cell phones and shared on social media.

The train—a locomotive pushing three cars—ripped through three structural steel beams at the terminal, causing the station’s canopy ceiling to collapse onto a woman standing at a station platform, killing her. The state medical examiner’s office identified the woman as Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, 34, of Hoboken.

Bittar de Kroon worked for software company SAP in its legal department in Brazil but left earlier this year. SAP spokesman Andy Kendzie says the company is “shaken by the news” and “profoundly saddened” by the news of her death.

Another 114 people—most of them passengers on the train—were injured, including three critically. None of the remaining injuries were considered life threatening, according to officials at area hospitals.

Among the injured was the train’s engineer, identified by New Jersey Transit as Thomas Gallagher, a 29-year employee, who was released from a hospital later Thursday and was cooperating with authorities, officials said.

National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a “go team” to the scene, led by investigator in charge Jim Southworth, a 35-year rail veteran, and other experts who would look at the train’s operations, mechanical issues, human performance, signals, track issues and survival factors, according NTSB Vice Chair T. Bella Dinh-Zarr.

“Our mission is not just to understand what happened, but to understand why it happened so that we can prevent it from happening again,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Dinh-Zarr said investigators would not have full access to the train until, likely, Friday afternoon after contractors remove part of the station canopy that collapsed on top of it and also checked the area for asbestos.

Investigators did expect to retrieve the train’s “black box” event recorder Thursday. It could provide information about the train’s operation, including its speed and whether brakes were applied. The train was also equipped with outward-facing video cameras, according to the NTSB.

Hoboken, which is NJ Transit’s fifth-busiest station with 15,000 boarding per weekday, is situated just across the Hudson River from New York City. It is the final stop for several train lines and a transfer point for many commuters on their way to New York City. Many passengers get off at Hoboken and take ferries or a PATH commuter train to New York.

At an afternoon news conference near the scene of the crash, Christie and Cuomo praised the heroism of emergency workers and commuters who helped contain the casualties to just one—a “blessing” given the extent of the devastation at the station, Cuomo said. The two governors cautioned the public against jumping to any conclusions about what caused the crash.

“There’s no real point to speculating what happened. Why did the train come in so fast? Was there a medical condition? . . . We have no idea,” Cuomo said after touring the crash scene. “The NTSB will come up. They’ll do a full investigation. Once we have the facts, if there is a lesson to learn, we will learn it.”

With all the victims being treated for their injuries, Christie said the top priority was ensuring the safety of the damaged terminal to avoid any further injuries. “When we determine that the building is safe, we will reopen it. But we won’t reopen it a minute earlier,” Christie said.

With the railroad station shut down, NJ Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates some Metro-North trains on NJ Transit’s tracks, scrambled to provide extra bus and train service on other lines to accommodate displaced passengers. The Port Authority’s PATH station, just below the Hoboken Terminal, was expected to resume full service Thursday, having passed a safety inspection.

Officials with the Long Island Rail Road, which shares Penn Station with NJ Transit, said they did not expect any impact from the accident on LIRR commuters.

The crash was the latest of several deadly train accidents in the Northeast in recent years, including a Dec. 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx that killed four and a May 2015 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight.

In both instances, investigators said federally-mandated positive train control systems could have prevented the accidents. The technology automatically slows down or stops trains that exceed speed limits. NTSB Vice Chair Dinh-Zarr said the technology’s potential to avoid the Hoboken crash “is definitely one of the things that we would look at carefully.”

Hoboken was the site of at least two other train crashes, including one in May, 2011 when a PATH train struck the bumping post at the end of the tracks, injuring 30 people. The NTSB determined the accident was caused by “the failure of the engineer to control the speed of the train entering the station.”

And in December, 1985, a NJ Transit train crashed into the concrete bumper at Hoboken Terminal, injuring 54. Officials blamed the accident on a lubricant that had been applied to the tracks to test train wheels.

“Head house” stations like Hoboken—where train tracks terminate facing a station building—exist throughout the LIRR, including at Long Beach, Port Washington, Hempstead and in Brooklyn. In 1996, an LIRR train crashed through the bumper block at the Flatbush Avenue terminal, sending one train car onto the station platform and injuring two people.

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