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Investigators In Hoboken Sift Through Wreckage Of Deadly Train Crash

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Federal investigators have recovered one of the black boxes from the commuter train that plowed into the Hoboken, N.J. Terminal during morning rush hour yesterday. Investigators are hoping to get a better look at the wreckage today. After crashing through several barriers, the train flew up in the air, ultimately ending in a stunning sight - tangled wreckage strewn throughout the historic terminal with passengers bloody and covered in dust. One woman on the platform was killed by falling debris.

Here is National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chair Bella Dinh-Zarr at the terminal late yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELLA DINH-ZARR: The canopy of the building is on top of the controlling car. And water has been leaking all day. So there may be some structural damage and weakness.

MONTAGNE: Joining us now in the studio to update us on the investigation is NPR's David Schaper. Good morning.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, now, where was this data recorder found and what exactly can it tell us?

SCHAPER: Well, as the vice chair described, the scene is still kind of chaotic. And there's a lot of debris and things that are not stable that are unsafe in the lead car in particular. But that car was - the train was kind of running in a backwards formation. So the locomotive was behind it. And they were able to get into the locomotive and recover one of the data recorders from there. And that could provide, you know, very significant clues for investigators. Debbie Hersman is a former National Transportation Safety Board chair, and she's been on the scene of a lot of these kinds of crashes over the years.

And she says the data recorders can really tell investigators an awful lot about what might have gone wrong.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: The recorders are going to give them good information about speed, about throttle position, about any action that that conductor might be taking. We will want to understand if there were any mechanical failures or if he just tried to apply the brakes too late.

MONTAGNE: And witnesses reported that the train seemed to be traveling way too fast as it came into the station. Does that speed provide any clues as to what might've, you know, caused the train to crash? Obviously, you know, something was wrong right there.

SCHAPER: It does because it shouldn't have been. The speed limit going into that terminal is 10 miles an hour. For it to crash through the stopping posts at the end, which are pretty big structures in and of themselves, it had to be going, according to experts I've talked to, much faster than 10 miles an hour, probably at least 20 miles an hour or even faster. Bob Swint is CEO of ATA Associations - Associates, I'm sorry. And it's a forensic engineering firm that reconstructs accidents like this.

He says the leading cause in his mind so far, depending on what all the other evidence shows, is that the train's operator somehow must have been incapacitated.

BOB SWINT: The operator of this unit, for some reason, had a problem, you know, whether it was inattention, fatigue, illness. It tends to say that this is something that operators are trained to do. Coming into a rail station is one of the most sensitive things you do. You come in slow.

SCHAPER: So the fact that it was going so fast is a big clue to him that something was wrong with the operator, although he says it's way too soon to rule out any kind of mechanical or brake failure that might've also contributed.

MONTAGNE: Well, how will investigators proceed?

SCHAPER: Well, now they need to try to stabilize the situation with the wreckage. But they'll hopefully comb through the wreckage, examine the tracks, the positioning of the tracks, get the other data recorder. And they'll use what they find on the first data recorder to corroborate whatever evidence, physical evidence, they see on the scene. It's a very complex, complicated puzzle that they're piecing together. And it takes some time.

And they'll also be doing some interviews with the train's engineer, who was injured in the wreck but has been released from the hospital and according to all reports, is cooperating fully.

MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, we've talked about technology that can prevent these kinds of crashes and derailments called positive train control. Anything like that on this train?

SCHAPER: There was no positive train control on this train. All railroads have to have the technology in place by 2018. But many commuter rails in particular are behind. This would stop the train if the operator fails to stop the train in time. And it's just very complex and very expensive. And commuter railroads, only a few of them have it so far.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, thanks very much, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's David Schaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.