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The day I survived

February 27, 2019


Yesterday I had the narrowest of escapes – without quite realizing it until much later.

For starters, everything that could possibly go wrong did.

I set out for work as usual, after my hour at the gym, and a quick breakfast, off to my copy-editing shift on the Newsday day desk. As I cruised along on the Southern State Parkway, I heard a hard object — rock or metal — hit the undercarriage of my 2014 Prius, triggering a warning on my dashboard that I should stop in a safe place immediately and get my hybrid system inspected. Not good.

But I kept driving and made it to my office parking lot on Pinelawn Road 5 miles away. I got in touch with the nearest Toyota service station in Huntington to get the problem examined, and eventually left it there and got dropped back to the office.

After my shift ended in the evening, I planned to take the Long Island Rail Road train home. I took an Uber to the Farmingdale station. The last time I took the train home was five years ago. I thought I knew my way around – but nonetheless ended up on the wrong side of the station. When I realized this, I ran through the tunnel under the tracks to the westbound side to catch the 7 p.m. to Jamaica, from where I would take a train to Valley Stream and take a cab home.

That’s not how things turned out.

I got in the westbound train, and sat by a window on the north side, looking at the darkening evening sky. We passed Bethpage, then Hicksville. Then came the announcement that we were approaching Mineola. Moments later I saw a burst of flames right outside a window on the south side and felt the whole car heat up momentarily. I heard the muffled sound of the flames hitting the window. We seemed to have just gone through a fireball. A loud thud followed, and then another powerful one, before the train scraped against a hard surface and wobbled to a stop.

That was the scariest moment. I looked outside. The traffic on the street was a good 20 feet below. We were on an elevated section of track, and I was afraid we would topple over with the impact. Luckily we didn’t.

The worst, for me, was over.

Passengers on the train got restless. Some panicked, tried opening windows and doors, even though we were clearly locked in. A conductor raced to the front to figure out what was going on. A teenager called her mom. “I might not make it home, mom,” she said, first sobbing with emotion, then exploding: “Is that all you have to say?!”

I learned that human behavior in such situations is infectious. I stayed calm, seated by the window, and sure enough, a fellow passenger came and sat by me, and others settled down on seats nearby. A young man raced to the exit and tried banging on the door. Others followed suit. Some argued about not wasting time sitting inside waiting for help that was not going to arrive. Others pleaded helplessness.

Eventually, there came the announcement that we had hit a car on the tracks, so please be patient. Emergency personnel were on their way to rescue us — get a ladder to help us off the train. Nassau County emergency personnel got on he train and told us someone was in the car that was struck, and an emergency operation was underway.

I had switched to reporter mode and began tweeting out pictures from inside the train and sending tweets and feeds to my paper, Newsday. I spoke to my editor, who asked me to stay on the scene as long as I could and gather details. My long trip home had turned into a spot news assignment.

Soon Nassau County emergency personnel set up a sturdy ladder against one of the front cars, and helped us climb all of about 15 feet down to the ground, one at a time.

We were just outside the Westbury station. It was freezing cold. Some passengers, like a young Indian pharmaceutical worker from Central Islip headed to Secaucus, where he lives with his wife, didn’t seem to be wearing enough layers to be out on the frigid February night. We were asked to gather at an indoor taxi stand at the intersection of Union and Linden avenues. The room was packed. The police were taking down names. Anyone who needed medical attention was asked to seek help at the post office. A bus would eventually take us to a point from where we could get home.

On the prowl for color from the scene, I spoke to two young women from the Netherlands, Giullia and Dianne, both scientists headed to a conference in Baltimore. They said they had landed at JFK about 5 p.m. and decided to spend some time in New York City, so they took an air train to Jamaica, where they hopped on an LIRR train — only to learn they were headed in the wrong direction. So they made the switch at Bethpage — and got on the ill-fated train that hit the car. 

Were they upset, or exhausted? Far from it.

The intrepid travelers took it all in stride, and had a word of praise for Long Islanders. “People on the train were helping each other out,” Giullia said. “The railroad personnel were concerned about everyone’s safety. We thought they responded well.”

Despite their difficulties, these young professionals — who couldn’t have been older than in their late 20s — were extremely mature and level-headed. They saw it all as nothing more than an unfortunate accident — a situation where everyone was supposed to come together and help one another, as they saw happening.

Where were they going to stay the night? Accommodation had been reserved for them, they were told, though they weren’t 100 percent sure.

How were they planning to go to Baltimore?

“Not by train!” they laughed. “We’ll take the bus.”

Their lightheartedness and indomitable spirit seemed to bear lessons for many others.

Only much later did we learn that two trains were involved in the accident — and that the fireball I saw was a car with three occupants that had been smashed to bits by two locomotives running in opposite directions as it tried to beat them at a particularly accident-prone railroad crossing.

All three, of course, had died.

I was among about a thousand LIRR riders lucky to have got away without a scrape — alive to tell the story.

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