United States

Car on Tracks in Fatal Dual LIRR Train Collision May Have Been Fleeing From Minor Accident, Police Say

The vehicle was trying to get around the gates, officials said

What to Know

  • Three people were killed when two LIRR trains crashed into a vehicle on the tracks in Westbury, sources say
  • Officials said the driver was trying to get around the lowered gates at the crossing when the train hit the vehicle
  • Service disruptions continued through Wednesday morning

The car that went around railroad crossing safety gates and caused the horrific dual fatal Long Island Rail Road train collision in Westbury may have been fleeing a minor fender bender, police say.

Two Long Island Rail Road trains traveling in opposite directions collided with a vehicle on the tracks in Westbury Tuesday night, killing all three occupants inside before one of the trains derailed and tore into a concrete platform, officials said. 

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the vehicle was "trying to beat the gate" when it was struck just before 7:30 p.m. He said one of the trains, which was carrying about 200 passengers and headed for Manhattan, was going at "full speed" when it crashed. 

"The train then leaves the track and takes out the platform and the hits the north side of the platform and takes off about 30 yards of concrete, which goes through the train," Ryder said. 

Nassau County police said Wednesday that car could have been fleeing a minor accident involving two other cars at the rail road crossing seconds before. 

The three men killed in the crash have not been indentified, but a family member of the driver confirmed to News 4 that he was the man seen on surveillance video entering a barbershop on School Street with two other men, then driving off in a burgundy Jeep and stopping just before the railroad crossing. The driver and his two passengers all worked together at a nearby grocery store, a manager at the store said, and were headed out after work.   

The driver lived in a Hicksville home with his wife and three children, according to his landlord, Singh Sukhjinder.  

Police say they hope to use more surveillance video and eyewitness testimonies to piece together what exactly took place.

A photo captured from inside one of the trains after the crash showed total wreckage.

Gov. Cuomo called for a "full investigation into the collision," which also injured eight, sending seven people on the trains to local hospitals with non-fatal injuries and forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 passengers and crew on the two trains. 

Three of the injured remain at Nassau University Medical Center — two middle-aged men are in critical condition with spinal injuries and internal bleeding, police say.

One of the severly injured is the train engineer who was trapped in the debris for a time after the train hit the platform and was subsequently rescued by Nassau cops, police say.

The other person still hospitalized with less severe injuries is a woman in her 40s who suffered a seizure while also trapped in the debris.

LIRR President Phillip Eng said the vehicle went around the grade crossing and was struck by the train that was leaving Westbury station. He said the gates at the crossing were properly functioning. 

"The gates were down, the lights were flashing. We've confirmed that they were functioning," he said. "Witnesses have said the vehicle went around the gates, at which point the train that was leaving, heading eastbound, and the vehicle collided. 

A westbound train traveling toward Westbury then struck the vehicle, he said. The vehicle was pushed and that's when the front two cars of the westbound train came off the rails, Eng said. 

Chopper 4 footage showed the train cars standing upright after the wreck, but with the forward cars off the rails. One end of one the trains struck a station platform, crushing part of it. 

Many emergency vehicles were on the scene, including some ambulances. The doors of the train were open and firefighters and other emergency workers could be seen entering and moving through the cars. Service was suspended in both directions on the Ronkonkoma and Huntington/Port Jefferson branches. Lines remained suspended early Wednesday and the LIRR was offering limited service for the morning rush. Get the latest transit updates here.

Passenger Kiara Jackson told Newsday she heard the sound of metal dragging along the concrete platform. 

"I knew something was wrong. We were in a panic," Jackson said. "There was a screech and then there was a thud. They told us to walk westerly and there were two small fires. Smoke was kind of coming in so they told us to just keep walking." 

Another passenger, April Frazier, 31, of Brooklyn, was heading to Penn Station. 

"I was sitting on the left side and all of a sudden the train really started rocking hard," Frazier told Newsday. "Flames flared up on my side. I heard the conductor yell 'Brake, brake!' That's when I saw the flames." 

Chris O'Neil, chief spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that the circumstances of the crash, though tragic, don't point to any safety issues that require further investigation or new recommendations by the agency.

Tuesday night's crash was the fifth incident at the crossing in the last 40 years, and the second involving a train hitting a vehicle, according to federal safety data. In the others, a person walking or standing on the tracks was hit by a train. 

As part of the LIRR expansion and modernization project, the railroad's "A Modern LI" website said it planned to eliminate the School Street grade crossing, saying it "poses a safety risk to drivers, pedestrians and LIRR customers," and replace it with a "two-way grade separated underpass." 

After a spike in deaths at railroad crossings in 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a public awareness campaign with the slogan "Stop! Trains Can't." The Federal Railroad Administration developed a crossing-finder app and persuaded technology companies to add grade-crossing warnings to GPS devices and mapping applications. 

In 2017, there were 2,115 grade-crossing crashes in the U.S., resulting in 271 deaths. That was the highest yearly grade-crossing death toll in a decade (2008 had 290). Full-year data isn't available for 2018.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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