I was in the lead car of the New Jersey Transit train that crashed Thursday in Hoboken, N.J., sitting about eight rows from the front, on the left side, and as we entered the station the lights went out, I felt the car leave the rails and my first thought was, “This is a train crash — duck and cover.”
Thankfully, most of us survived. But I’m devastated for the family of the one woman who died, and I think about those hurt more seriously than me. And now that a few days have passed, another thought comes to mind. The whole thing should — and could — have been prevented.
The crash itself was chaos: Unlike the cliche, at no point did I feel like my life flashed before my eyes, but right before impact I tucked my head down against the seat in front of me, put my hands over my head, closed my eyes and thought, “This is not something you get away from.”
My car’s roof and the roof of the station were destroyed, and the compartment was filled with sheet metal and insulation from both. My seat back was wrecked, but the seat in front of me was intact and I’m pretty sure that’s what shielded me from the worst damage. Sheet metal cut a deep gash in my knee and my forearm, sheared off my thumbnail and lacerated my neck from my ear to my throat. After the collision, I heard someone kicking out a window on the right side of the car, beyond where I could see, and I think that’s how some of the passengers in the first few rows got out. Another passenger pulled the emergency handle on window nearest to me, and we tried to push out the window but couldn’t get it dislodged. I remember apologizing for being unable to push the window out. A woman in the row ahead of me was panicked, so I kept reassuring her that we were going to get out. I was able to lift enough metal out of the way so others could crawl through, but I cautioned them to go slowly and watch for sharp edges. When I saw blood on the piece of metal I was holding, I recall saying something like, “Is that my blood?”
Before I got out, I felt something tugging on my leg and I shouted, “Stop pulling that, it’s got me!” A woman behind me responded, “It’s just my purse,” and I disentangled my leg from the strap and handed the purse to her, grabbing my backpack as well. She was the last person to crawl through before me, and she looked back before she exited, as if to ask how I was going to get through. I told her to keep going, then crawled through the wreckage last, with flashlights of the first responders illuminating the way out. “I’m coming,” I called out to them. “I’m injured.”
Once I was away from the wreckage, I called my wife and told her that I’d survived but that I was injured and not yet sure how badly. I asked a NJ Transit worker where I could find emergency medical personnel and was told to go to the train terminal’s waiting room. I found no one there who could help so I walked outside and found a NJ Transit police officer who told me to sit down and wait there for the EMTs. While I sat and tried to slow the bleeding from my hand and forearm, I emailed my team at work to let them know I’d survived. A bystander offered me a handkerchief to wrap my hand, and I sat there, holding my hand, periodically asking the officer when he thought ambulances might arrive, reminding him that I was losing a lot of blood. He told me that my arm looked as if it might have had a compound fracture. (I found out later that it wasn’t fractured, just deeply lacerated.)
All things considered, most people were doing what they could to make the best of a bad situation, but I was unnerved by several people taking pictures rather than offering to help and wondered why someone’s first instinct would be to document, rather than assist, in that type of situation. Particularly when anything, really, helps. I’m grateful to the people who offered me water and to those who volunteered to make calls for me. It’s hard to operate a phone when you’re injured.
Eventually, a first responder named Bev arrived to take my contact information and wait with me until an ambulance arrived. At one point, I nearly passed out and lay on the ground with my leg elevated on my backpack, thinking, “Oh . . . this is how you end up dying, bleeding to death on the ground waiting for the ambulance.” But more help arrived, and Bev and others covered me with blankets and their own coats and talked with me, keeping me conscious throughout. Two doctors, Brian and, I think, Henry, who were on their way to work stopped to help. They wrapped my leg and arm to slow the bleeding and then the ambulance arrived. I called my wife again and was taken to Hoboken University Medical Center with another man, who had head trauma but was still conscious. The EMTs told me my leg was almost tourniquet-worthy, but they left it wrapped up and got us to the ER quickly.
Everything from the time of the crash until that moment was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
At the hospital my blood pressure crashed from blood loss, but I recovered without a transfusion. It was like one of those TV-show emergency-room scenes — I was shaking violently and surrounded by doctors and nurses. Again I worried, thinking, “Of course, this is how you die . . . bleeding to death in the hospital.” But that was the last truly scary incident of the day. I remained conscious until they ultimately put me under for surgery. Doctors worked on ligament, arterial and membrane damage in my knee, and afterward I was told the surgery went well. I also got stitches on my neck, forearm, thumb and middle finger. Now I can get around slowly on crutches while my knee is immobilized for at least 10 days.
Bottom line: I’m happy to be home with my family — there were moments when I thought I might never see them again. And I still get choked up thinking about all of the first responders, transit workers, Good Samaritans and hospital staff who gave a little, or a lot, to save my life.
Other than a few bystanders taking pictures, what bothers — no, infuriates — me, is the thought that the crash might have been preventable. The cause is still undetermined, but “Federal investigators are looking at the lack of positive train control” as “a possible factor.” Positive train control is a safety feature that, by federal law, rail systems were supposed to implement by 2015 until the deadline was extended until 2018. Right now, only a few NJ Transit trains have been equipped with this system, and, reportedly, NJ Transit employees have yet to be trained in its use.
But instead of making transportation infrastructure a priority for his administration, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, has feuded with the state’s Democratic legislature over transportation funding, holding a gas tax increase hostage to get a repeal of the estate tax. Finally, last week, in exchange for a sales tax cut and an eventual phasing-out of the estate tax, Christie agreed to a gas tax hike — one day after the crash. As far as I’m concerned as a taxpayer, that’s too late.
Of course, I’d prefer it if none of us who were on that train or at the station last week would have experienced that horrible crash. But if there’s any chance for last Thursday’s events to go from senseless to somehow meaningful, it will only be if we hold Christie and the rest of our elected leaders accountable. We have to demand that public safety — implementing positive train control; upgrading trains, tracks, stations and other infrastructure; and making sure the state budget has necessary funds for properly staffed and equipped first-response services — is a nonpartisan issue that should come before a partisan agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy.
As far as I’m concerned, New Jersey’s government officials failed me and everyone else on that train by caring more about politics than safety.
The crash was terrifying. It’s terrifying to think we could have another one because our representatives won’t do their jobs.
Ward is a site reliability engineer. He lives in Hillsdale, New Jersey.