WESTBURY, NY — Two commuter trains traveling in opposite directions collided with a vehicle on the tracks in Westbury, killing all three occupants in the vehicle before one of the trains derailed and tore into a concrete platform Tuesday night, according to officials.
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.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a "full investigation into the collision," which also sent 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.
Long Island Rail Road 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.
Local TV news helicopter video 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. 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 Manhattan's 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."
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. T
hat was the highest yearly grade-crossing death toll in a decade (2008 had 290). Full-year data isn't available for 2018.