Train Crash

Amazing Grace in the Bronx: Inside the Metro-North Train-Wreck Rescue

Four were dead and dozens injured in an early-morning New York City train derailment, and firefighters needed help extricating the wounded. What followed was remarkable.

The first of the seven cars in the Sunday morning train derailment in the Bronx had nearly gone into to the river.

The second car had twisted as it flipped onto one side and then the other, ejecting several passengers through the windows.

The third car had people trapped inside.

But the fourth was the most challenging to the firefighters because it was sitting at a tilt and swayed as they worked to extricate the injured.

“The car was teetering back and forth,” later said FDNY Capt. James Ellson of Rescue 3. “So the removal of those people was getting a little tricky.”

In all the cars, there were more injured people than the firefighters and cops could immediately assist in those early minutes. The rescuers, who are geared to helping whoever needs it, had to make a difficult request to the passengers who were less badly injured than others.

“It’s very hard to ask a civilian who was just involved in an accident to help us,” Ellson would recall. “They had just been involved in a very bad train accident, and now I’m saying, ‘I need your help, I need you to help people who are in worse shape.’ I asked everybody, ‘Listen, look at the people next to you, and if they need help, help them.’ And they did it.”

The response was all the more remarkable because of what all these people had just been through as the cars violently flipped onto one side, righted, then flipped onto the other side. The people on the higher side had been tossed onto those on the lower, and then all of them had been thrown back the other way in a jumble.

“You’d think people would want to just get out and run as far as they could, but people were very good,” Ellson said afterward. “It is amazing. One moment they’re riding the train, they’re coming or going to work and it’s Sunday morning, and the next moment their whole lives are tossed up in the air, and they’re not just a survivor, you’re asking them to help.”

The better-off passengers applied gauze to the wounds of others and offered whatever aid and comfort they could as the firefighters attended to those who were most seriously injured.

“A lot people [were] unconscious,” a firefighter said. “A lot of broken bones and head injuries.”

The firefighters had responded to the report of a derailment hoping it might have been a garbage train or one of the unoccupied trains Metro-North sometimes runs to Grand Central Terminal. They knew otherwise when they saw numerous passengers self-evacuating from the cars.

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A number of passengers had been catapulted through the windows, in one instance with tragic results. Two passengers were trapped under cars and the firefighters dug them out, cutting away what need cutting, then using hand tools and just hands.

Many more injured passengers were in the cars. Just gaining entry was difficult, and in many cases firefighters had to clamber up and lower themselves through windows. They then had to choose who was most in need of assistance.

“You don’t have one to one rescue personnel to civilian,” a firefighter said later. “Everybody had bumps and bruises. Then you have people in very bad shape.”

The firefighters and the responding cops worked as quickly as they could while still taking care not to cause further injury. They made sure to stabilize and immobilize spines and necks before attempting to move a victim. They then faced the question of the best way to get the person out, and in several instances the heavy steel doors at the end of the car were jammed shut.

Once the injured were removed, they were taken to a casualty collection point. The firefighters did not want the ambulatory passengers to chance onto an electrified rail or encounter some other hazard. The firefighters directed them to the nearby Spuyten Duyvil Station. The passengers did as they were instructed.

“The walking wounded were very good,” a firefighter noted.

More firefighters continued to arrive, along with more officers from the NYPD and the Metro-North Police.

“Everybody worked together,” a firefighter reported.

Just before 2 p.m., Rescue 3 left the scene. Other firefighters and cops were assigned to remain on hand as Metro-North officials and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board sought to determine the cause of the derailment. A black box was recovered from the engine. The train operator had reportedly said his brakes failed as he came to a curve where he was supposed to slow from 70 mph to 30 mph.

Some 150 passengers had been aboard, five of them off-duty cops. A total of 67, including three of the cops, were transported to local hospitals. Eleven passengers were listed in critical condition. Everybody gave thanks that the wreck had not occurred on a weekday, when those seven cars might have been filled with 1,000 people or more.

“It would have been the worst train disaster in New York history,” a firefighter said.

That would have included the 1882 collision of two trains on almost this very spot, killing 12, including state Sen. Webster Wagner.

The four dead from this Thanksgiving weekend wreck of 2013—who included a media consultant named Jim Lovell, on his way to help prepare the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center for the annual lighting—were a reminder that our most fundamental blessing, the gift of life, is forever subject to happenstance. You need only chance to sit in the wrong seat on the wrong train. A good many survivors afterward offered thanks to a higher power instead of simple blind luck.

“God is good!” exclaimed a 19-year-old college student.

“Thank God!” said the husband of a conductor.

If God is in goodness just as the devil is in evil, then God was indeed manifest in all those battered and shaken people who heeded the call from the firefighters to help somebody more injured than themselves. Ellson knew just what to call this kind of grace.