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November 26, 2014
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A derailment by any other name is still….

Tom Caska

The derailment of the Metro North 5:54 a.m. from Poughkeepsie was tragic indeed. Derailments are rare, but they do occur more often than we hear about. Most of the derailments happen at low speeds and rarely involve injuries. The 5:54 wasn’t so lucky. As it rounded the curve after the Spuyten Duyvil station, it derailed, left the tracks, and the head car barely missed landing in the Harlem River. The engine and all 10 train cars crashed that morning, most landing on their sides or seriously listing. There were more than 100 passengers on the train, either heading to work or heading home from the holiday weekend. Train rides are always a homecoming from one direction or another; this day home was Grand Central Station. Four died along the way and over 60 were injured. All of those passengers never had a homecoming on the train this day.

The news reports while still fresh, remind me of my own personal experience with a derailment on the Port Jervis line at Garfield in June 2001. I had taken the 4:05 a.m. early train that day for purely personal reasons. The seats were quite full that day, and I took a seat at the front end of the second car from the engine with my back facing the exit door of the train. It is a wide corner seat with a row of seats facing me. Before long I was joined by an electrician facing me. He takes the 3:40 in every morning and this was his normal train home. Thirtyish, with a slim build, he stowed his gear under his seat and fell fast asleep as did I. The last thing I remember seeing was a young conductor standing against the door next to me sorting his tickets. I did not see him again.

It’s amazing how certain sounds in life bring your mind quickly back to a situation: that summer song, a child’s laughter, the bark of a big dog too close and… the sounds of screeching breaks. This being my second derailment, I immediately had a point of reference for the sound; it was not good. We all quickly realized this was not a scheduled stop. The abrupt awakening brought the sight of the fellow in front of me bouncing out of his seat, slamming against the side wall of the car. While he was trying to right himself the train lurched to a stop and listed to the side. I grabbed him by his shoulders and held him down until the train finally settled. His wide eyes were mirrors of mine, I am sure. The physics of the moment had items in the storage rack flying in all directions, most heading my way. There were screams in the car but no panic, and as the dust began to settle, we could see the car was at a 45-degree list. It seemed we could reach out and touch the rail bed.

Reality quickly turned to the realization that we had to get off the train, since it might continue to fall. My seat mate grabbed his gear and was the first out of the car; I quickly followed the others. We moved to the first car since the jump to the ground was not as bad. As people do, most upon hitting the ground helped other passengers off the train. We would move from exit to exit helping people till everyone was off the train; by that time the police and emergency services were on the scene.

There was one woman on the ground with only one shoe, who was attempting to climb back into the train. The Jersey State Trooper told her to stop and asked her where she was going, she replied, “These are VERY expensive shoes, and if I don’t come home with both, my husband will kill me.” The trooper told her to stay put and asked where she was sitting, soon emerging from her car with the missing shoe. She seemed more excited to see the shoe than to be on the ground (a woman and her shoes will not be easily separated).

The rescue train arrived within an hour or two, and once all were aboard, the young conductor came on the PA with an announcement; his first words, “Sorry about that folks.” Before long we were on our way, this derailment behind us, none the worse for the wear and tear. Eventually, it would be determined that a dump truck moving a container had backed into the rail and knocked it out of alignment. Our engineer saw this as he entered Garfield and was able to slow the train, unfortunately not enough.

It may be months before we have a final determination regarding the cause of the Poughkeepsie 5:54 derailment. Friends who ride the train daily tell me it’s a bad turn, and they always slow down. Passengers this day say the train was traveling too fast. Maybe a new conductor, filling in for a regular on vacation, was unfamiliar of the turn; maybe equipment failure of the brakes; maybe the cement track foundation crumbled, as there are issues with shoddy replacement of this foundation; time will tell the cause. My own experience in June 2001 barely prepared me for what would come a few short months later as I was across the streets from the World Trade towers on 9/11. Let’s pause for a moment for the passengers killed and injured on the 5:54 and hope the survivors never have to experience this again, and that all their homecomings are safe.