View Full Version : A Runaway Engine Plows Through Queens, Injuring 4

Ken Carr
03-13-2004, 09:32 AM
March 11, 2004 New York Times
A Runaway Engine Plows Through Queens, Injuring 4

runaway locomotive plowed through a Queens neighborhood yesterday afternoon, slamming into five vehicles and injuring four people, two of them critically, the authorities said.

The unmanned diesel engine, a Long Island Rail Road locomotive, became unhitched from two other train cars at a freight yard in Queens around 2:20 p.m., the authorities said, and began rolling west down a sloping stretch of track on the railroad's Bushwick branch.

The engine ran through several intersections in an industrial section of Maspeth, smashing into three automobiles. It barreled on toward the Brooklyn border, bearing down on a maintenance crew repairing the track.

"One of the workers yelled, 'Runaway train; get off the tracks,' " said Xavier Zevallos, 24, a warehouse manager. Mr. Zevallos said the roaring diesel's rumble and its impact with three cars shook the ground and the heavy brick buildings in the area, which is dense with warehouses and commercial businesses.

The workers dashed to safety and the engine rammed two of their maintenance trucks on the track, causing one of them, a welding truck, to explode into flames. The burning truck became wedged between the tracks and the locomotive and helped grind the engine to a fiery halt near Varick Avenue, just shy of the old Bushwick Terminal.

As flames engulfed the locomotive and caused steel canisters of acetylene gas on the truck to explode, a city firefighter, Lt. William Pickett, leaped onto the engine, shut it down and activated the emergency brake.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze, but the engine left almost a mile of destruction in its wake. The two most seriously injured people were in the first car the engine struck, a Dodge Spirit sedan traveling north on 54th Street. Its driver, Jason Kusinitz, 33, and a passenger, Demetrius Cuffie, 37, were taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where Mr. Kusinitz, who sustained head injuries, underwent surgery last night for removal of his spleen. Mr. Cuffie had several broken bones and other injuries. Both men were listed in critical condition.

Chris DaVino, 27, a tow-truck driver for a nearby auto-body business, saw the car after the engine hit. "The driver was completely mangled and bleeding from the head," he said. "He looked dead for sure. The passenger was gasping for air."

Then, at Metropolitan Avenue, the locomotive hit a second and third car. Two people in the second car - a nun, 59, who sustained two broken wrists and a broken ankle, and an elderly man - were taken to Elmhurst Hospital as well, the authorities said. They were both listed in stable condition last night.

One firefighter was hospitalized for a minor back injury, Fire Department officials said.

At a news conference late yesterday afternoon at the accident scene, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said: "Obviously something went terribly wrong. Obviously this was a malfunction, or a mistake made by personnel." He said that somehow the locomotive had come unhitched at the yard while it was briefly unattended, and began rolling.

"Obviously, the brakes weren't set, or the brakes didn't work," he said. "Why the brakes weren't on at the time is something that will be under investigation." The mayor said the crash would be investigated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board. Both agencies sent investigators to the accident scene.

"We're lucky," Mr. Bloomberg said. "This could have been an even worse tragedy."

Thomas J. Kelly, a spokesman for the transit authority, called it "a freak accident."

He said traffic gates were not needed at the intersections because "each train has flagmen that come out and direct traffic."

He said the runaway engine had become unhitched at the Fresh Pond rail yard in Queens, where it was being towed for attachment to a Montauk-bound Long Island Rail Road train.

"Usually they use either a hand brake, air brake or a chuck under the wheel to secure the train," he said. "We don't know yet until we investigate if any of those things were done."

There appeared to be no safety gates, traffic lights or even warning signs on any of the streets that the tracks cross, and yesterday many local workers and residents called the crossings dangerous. Drivers and workers said that train operators were usually careful to stop at intersections and warn drivers with hand signals, flags, flares or horn blasts before driving trains slowly across the intersections.

Drivers for the Atlantic Express school bus company, which has a yard nearby, said that the tracks were often obscured by large buildings and parked tractor-trailers near the tracks.

"These trains come right out at you," said one Atlantic Express driver, who would not give his name. "If you don't know this area, you'd never know there was a train coming. And it's going to happen again if they don't put gates up."