High asbestos levels and extensive debris delayed the federal investigation of the Hoboken train crash in New Jersey for more than a week, officials said.
Although officials reopened the majority of the rails at the Hoboken terminal this week, efforts to completely clean the century-old terminal will take even longer.
The Sept. 29 crash killed 34-year-old Fabiola Bittar de Kroon and injured more than a hundred passengers and others waiting at the station. De Kroon was standing on the platform at the Hoboken train station when falling debris struck her, authorities said.
The debris from the crash immediately became a concern for investigators. Not only did large pieces of wreckage hamper investigators’ access to the locomotive, but high levels of toxic asbestos in the air made the task of removing debris difficult and hazardous.
It also delayed investigators from reaching crucial evidence from the train, including event recorders and onboard cameras.
“Extensive monitoring and testing has been and continues to be done by OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration],” Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told Asbestos.com by email.
Four days after the Hoboken train crash, O’Neil said air quality levels were far below permissible levels for workers who may be exposed to the toxin day after day for 8-hour periods.
NJ Transit, the state-owned public transportation system managing debris removal operations, hired a contractor to perform the air quality tests O’Neil mentioned.
OSHA, which provided compliance assistance support during the recovery stage, also took asbestos samples. The federal agency is still awaiting those results, according to OSHA spokesperson Kimberly Darby.
“The issue is that the building associated with that station is very, very old, constructed in an era when asbestos was regularly used,” O’Neil told The Wall Street Journal.
Asbestos is the naturally occurring fiber once used in virtually everything throughout the commercial and residential construction industry because of its low cost and durability. Asbestos is relatively harmless if left undisturbed and intact, but the carcinogenic mineral becomes life-threatening when its toxic fibers become airborne.
The mineral can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis decades after the inhalation of these fibers.
Survivors and first-responders who didn’t have proper safety equipment to protect them from potential exposure may be at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.
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Asbestos Dangers Uncovered After Hoboken Train Crash
The high asbestos levels forced investigators to evacuate the station less than 24 hours after the crash.
“Because of asbestos and the unsettled structure, we are uncertain about, we have not let anyone to go in there,” NTSB lead investigator James Southworth said in a September press conference. “None of the evidence in there is perishable, so I have the time to go in there.”
NTSB Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr described the overlapping debris inside the Hoboken terminal as a “dangerous ‘pick-up-sticks’-esque situation.”
The train came to a rest at the intersection of the historical train building, its train shed and its canopy system, according to Dinh-Zarr. The lead car was lodged under the canopy’s enormous I-beams and concrete slabs.
Hoboken’s Erie-Lackawanna Railroad Terminal dates back to the early 1900s, a time when asbestos was mixed with cement, drywall, insulation, tile flooring and ductwork connectors, among other construction materials.
The impact of the crash likely disrupted these century-old materials, causing the release of dangerous asbestos fibers.
Removing the train’s two onboard event recorders, also known as a “black box,” was a key step in the investigation, but the airborne asbestos and mangled canopy made this process difficult.
The first recorder, taken from the train on Oct. 2, was not working. It wasn’t until two days later that NTSB officials recovered a second recorder, this one from the lead car trapped under the collapsed canopy.
The second box — along with on-board video recordings — provided investigators with information about speed, braking and other conditions.
Officials: Train Moving Too Fast
Authorities said the terminal’s signals appeared to be working properly, but the train was moving too fast, traveling 21 mph before it went barreling past the bumping post at the end of Track 5. The speed limit is 10 mph in that area.
Train operator Thomas Gallagher, 48, told investigators he doesn’t remember anything from the crash, but said he got adequate rest before operating the train. Gallagher tested negative for alcohol and drugs.
The working event recorder showed the commuter train accelerated from 8 to 21 mph about 38 seconds before the crash. The throttle was in the idle position but moved to a higher position as it approached the terminal.
NJ Transit passengers returned to the Hoboken station Oct. 10, as eight tracks opened. The four-car train involved in the deadly crash was towed out for federal safety officials to continue testing.
Although the initial data from the event recorder provided key information into the events leading up to the crash, NTSB officials said the full investigation into the cause could take more than a year.
Nine tracks at the Hoboken terminal remain out of service while crews continue to clean up the wreckage. The results from the air quality samples OSHA took shortly after the crash will provide more insight into the toxic levels the train’s passengers and first responders encountered Sept. 29.
Unfortunately, it could be decades before we know if the high asbestos levels from the Hoboken train crash caused any health issues.
Asbestos Prevalent in Hoboken
Hoboken is a city rich in history. Located across the Hudson River from Manhattan, it is part of the New York metropolitan area and is a major transportation hub for the region.
The Erie-Lackawanna Railroad Terminal is just one of nearly two dozen buildings in Hoboken on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hoboken’s history and adaptive reuse of these older buildings puts workers, residents and visitors at high risk for asbestos exposure.
While these historic sites are protected from demolitions and unexpected incidents, such as the train crash and natural disasters, they can cause damage to these century-old structures, disrupting asbestos-containing materials within.
Hoboken and the entire state of New Jersey are deeply rooted in the industrial sector. The state’s dependence on factory production increased during the Industrial Revolution.
Johns-Manville, the world’s largest producer of asbestos, opened its first insulation plant in central New Jersey in the early 1900s.
The United States Testing Company was one of Hoboken’s job sites known for asbestos exposure. While the original building at 15th Street and Park Avenue is now gone, the work done there lingers on. The company tested just about everything, from consumer products to chemicals. Many of these products contained dangerous asbestos.
Other well-known manufacturers throughout Hoboken’s history include Maxwell House, Lipton Tea and Bethlehem Steel Corporation.