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Commuter Train Crashes into Station in New Jersey; Interview with Sen Bob Menendez. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 29, 2016 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- accounts from inside and outside the train. Stories of people bracing for impact. Simply crawling out of train windows. When it finally stopped, even walking over a body as they tried to help others.


WILLIAM BLAINE: You just heard a kaboom. And you could hear it got quiet because the first thing you think of is terrorist. I'm sorry, this is how it goes in this country. I said, my God, somebody blew it up. Then I heard water running in so I ran out and I just looked to the right. I looked to the right. I just saw people laying down and debris and metal all over the place. And then, I looked clearer, I saw the train in the wall. The hardest part that hurts me is when I went to run in, I ended up stepping over a dead woman's body. That bothered me.

MIKE LARSON: The first thing I heard was the explosion of him hitting the bumper block and that train just flying through the air.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was like someone had his eye was gone. And, you know, he had one side and all the blood everywhere. And there was a lady laying down. I had, like, a video there and she was just laying. And she couldn't -- you know, she didn't breathe, at that point. And she was just sitting there for so long. Then, you know, everybody was, like, screaming and, like, in total panic.


BLITZER: CNN has learned that the lone fatality so far in the crash was a person who was actually standing on the platform. He wasn't even on the train when it crashed.

New Jersey Governor Christie tells CNN, he expected to be in Hoboken at the scene of the crash at some point later this afternoon. He'll be there with the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

CNN's Jean Casarez is joining us now live from Hoboken, New Jersey. Also with me in Washington, the former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board, Peter Goelz. And from Charleston, South Carolina, Mary Schiavo, CNN Aviation Analyst, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Jean, let's go right to you. What are you seeing from your vantage point right now? JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me tell you, Wolf, we're

waiting right now for a press briefing. We were told that it was going to start at 1:00 with the latest from the officials at the New Jersey Transit. We're now learning that the governors of New York and New Jersey are enroute. So, there may be a bit of a time so those governors can get in place so they can be part of this, too. It's unknown, at this point, but that's what we're hearing, that the presser may be pushed back a bit so the governors of New Jersey and New York can be present.

But what we do know is that it was 8:45 this morning. It was the height of rush hour. It was a New Jersey transit train coming from Spring Valley, New York to Hoboken which was the last stop. And a New Jersey transit worker told CNN that the train and the front car became airborne because of the fast rate of speed that it was going. And because that it was airborne, that it just plummeted into the passenger concourse. And that it decimated the ceiling. The -- structurally, the train station came down, at that point.

Now, that -- it was the last stop of the New Jersey transit train in Hoboken. But if you were on your way to New York City, you would transfer a train. It was the height of rush hour. And the passenger concourse, of anyone who knows train travel here on the east coast, you're waiting to get on that train because you have places to go. It is the work day. You're just huddled together waiting to get on. And the train was just about to depart going back into New Jersey, so it was the last stop, Hoboken. But those I've talked to that take this train say that the train immediately would go back into New Jersey.

So, at that point, emergency vehicles came on scene. When I arrived here early on, there were so many firefighting units, so many fire trucks. Victims transported to the hospital. But the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has said that everyone from the train has now been transported to a hospital, if they need that. And so, no one is left on the train, at this point.

But, as you said, 74 injured now. They're saying one fatality at this point. But I think the saddest thing of all, the engineer of that train, we do understand, Wolf, was unresponsive when they got to him and transported him to a local trauma center.

BLITZER: There are some indications that the terminal -- that the building, the terminal building, might not necessarily be stable right now, given this train crashing right into it. Could it still collapse?

CASAREZ: Well, I guess anything is possible. I will tell you that I see so many firefighters that are just standing outside of the train station. They're just there. And I saw more fire trucks and fire personnel. And they help with structural issues, right, because they go and fight fires and have to go into structural damage areas. But they have been positioned outside the train station. They're not leaving. They're just still right there at attention if they're needed, Wolf, I think.

BLITZER: Stand by because I want to get to some comments that were just made by the National Transportation Safety Bureau here in Washington, where they're getting ready to head over to the scene. Listen to this.


[13:05:13] BELLA DINH-ZARR, VICE-CHAIR, NTSB: The question is, will we be looking at the similarities between this crash and the crash that occurred in 2011? And, yes, we will. That was a crash that occurred at the same station on Mother's Day in 2011, and we always look at the past history and every other factor.


BLITZER: All right, Peter Goelz, he used to work at the NTSB. Coincidence, same train station, also a crash back in 2011?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, no, also a crash there in the 1990s. So, I mean, this is, sadly, something we've seen before. And they're going to be looking very carefully at human factors, at the survivability inside the rail cars and at issues, such as fatigue, for the driver. What was his last 72 hours like? Was he prepared for work? What kind of health issues did he have, if any? And this is -- this is going to be an investigation that the blueprint has been laid out before.

BLITZER: They'll look for human error or mechanical error.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: Those are the two causes that, presumably, out there.

GOELZ: That's right. And they'll be able to eliminate mechanical relatively quickly.

BLITZER: Mary, what is the first thing that investigators are going to be looking for (INAUDIBLE) crash?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: (INAUDIBLE) to do is secure any train recordings. The black box version of the train. Any information that they can get concerning the condition of the cab, that engineer. Because those are where the most positive pieces, most -- those concrete piece of evidence are going to come from because those are unassailable.

Eyewitness -- even eyewitness accounts can be unreliable sometimes. But that black box and that information, and condition of the controls in the cab and what was in the cab. Was the cell phone out? Was the cell phone put away? Did he have medication with him? All those things are really hard evidence and that's the first thing they want to secure.

BLITZER: How crucial, Peter, is the information they're going to get from the first responders who immediately showed up, long before the NTSB investigators show up?

GOELZ: Well, in terms of survival factors, it's going to be important. Because one of the issues I know will be, many of the passengers were probably standing as the train entered the -- entered the station. Were injuries exacerbated because they were standing? Should there be a safety announcement that says stay in your seats until we come to a complete stop?

BLITZER: Yes, usually those trains are packed, especially --

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: -- during that morning rush hour. Hold on for a moment. On the phone with us right now is Jamie Weatherhead-Saul. She was a passenger on the train that crashed. Jamie, first of all, how are you doing?

JAMIE WEATHERHEAD-SAUL (via telephone): I'm a little shaken up. I'm still a little overwhelmed. And it's surreal. But I'm much better than some people right now.

BLITZER: Did you have to get medical treatment? Did you have to go to the hospital?

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: I'm going to be enroute for the hospital shortly but I think stunned. So, like, that adrenaline is now starting to wear off. But, again, I'm so much better than some of the folks that were leaving the train at the time.

BLITZER: All right, so just be careful over there. Check -- make sure you check yourself in and get a complete checkup, just a little recommendation.


BLITZER: Now, am I correct that you were on that first car, the one that simply went airborne in the crash? Is that right?

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Yes, I was in the first car.

BLITZER: Tell us -- tell us what that was like.

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Super scary, once we realized we were approaching the station and in the station actually and the train had not, you know, slowed down. And it seemed like it was going at the same pace that it would be going from point A to point B.

And, at that point, once we realized that we were already in the station, that's when we noticed that there was -- we didn't know it was a collision, at the time. But the lights went out. Everybody in the vestibule, between the first and second cars, were flying into the first car or as far as, you know, they could inside.

And then, once we felt that initial -- I mean, I guess what we now know was a collision. You know, folks were toppled over one another where I was standing. I happened to be standing at the doorway to exit the first car, so, I guess in a way, I was fortunate.

But there was a gentleman right in front of me and two young ladies in front of me who immediately fell. The gentleman had a gash to his face and was bleeding but was trying to help other passengers remain calm. And the one of the young ladies actually had her legs caught between the two -- the two cars. But we managed to help her up safely and it looked like she might have just had some minor injuries.

But then, we noted people started screaming because it was dark. And I guess that's when the roof essentially probably started caving in. And we were able to get off through that door near the vestibule -- where the vestibule we were standing.

[13:10:04] But the folks on the inside had to be rescued through the window. And that's pretty much all we could see because they instructed us immediately to get back and to the -- away from the structural damage, I guess in hopes that nothing else would happen. And, at that point, everyone was just really, like, trying to remain calm. But we were super scared because, at the time, we didn't know what caused it until we were able to, you know, come out and, I guess, assess the damage a little bit.

BLITZER: Jamie, when you were coming into Hoboken on this train, you were in the first car. I assume the train was moving rapidly. But did it seem to be slowing down at all as you were getting closer to Hoboken and the terminal?

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: No, sir. At no point did we realize that it kind of had taken on that usual slow pace, where it goes, like, five to 10 miles per hour, once we come out of that -- once we come out of -- there's a tunnel leaving -- when you see Caucus (ph), there's a tunnel right before you approach the Hoboken train station. And it seemed that it never really slowed down. And it's usually, at that point, where we usually creep into the station.

And when you looked outside is when you noticed that we were literally, like, in the station at full speed and that's when the lights cut out. So, I don't really remember if we had time to, like, look out and see. But everyone from -- that was standing in the vestibules, between the first and second car, flew over into the first car. And many people were, like, thrown and there was a lot of blood and people were hurt. I guess their ankles or knees from the fall. I was fortunate to not fall because there were so many people piled up in front of me. It kind of braced me where I was in the car.

BLITZER: Jamie, I assume you're a regular commuter -- you're a regular commuter on this train, is that right?

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Yes, I take the 816 train from Woodridge every single day to come into Hoboken to then take the ferry to World Financial Center.

BLITZER: And then you go to work in Manhattan. And this --


BLITZER: -- is the first time -- the first time you -- the train was really coming into Hoboken and it didn't even slow down at all, whether you were going 40 or 50 or 60 miles an hour. It just continued to go at that speed as if no one --


BLITZER: -- had applied the brakes to slow down that train.

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Right. And, again, you know, I don't know if maybe -- we didn't know if there was something that maybe he foresaw that probably distracted him from -- you know, or if he pressed the brakes and it wasn't working. But it was nothing that had ever happened before. And, again, I take that train every single day, and I imagine it's probably the same engineer. And it was -- it was -- it's surreal because it was an impact that you couldn't even imagine.

BLITZER: And that train, that first car you were on, was pretty packed, Jamie? Were people sitting normally or are they standing as well, even when the train is moving?

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Over the last few weeks, I would say throughout the summer, they shortened the train. So, there's been less cars which means more people standing. On this particular day, there were a larger number of people in the vestibule between the train cars, because we couldn't actually get in the cars. In the car, it was packed to capacity. Every seat had -- was likely filled and there were still people spilling out so a lot of people were standing.

BLITZER: Well, Jamie, I'm glad you're OK. But, as I said before, maybe get a little check-up just to make sure there's no problems. We'll stay in touch with you. Thanks so much for sharing your story with our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Thank you, Jamie, for that.

WEATHERHEAD-SAUL: Thank you so much. Take care.

BLITZER: All right, we will be in touch with you. A pretty harrowing tale we just heard. We're going to speak with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. We're going to get more information. Standing by for news conferences from Hoboken officials. That's the city where this train crashed into that station, also from New Jersey transit officials. Much more on the breaking news right after a quick break.



[13:18:37] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. A commuter train slammed into a train station, a terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was packed with people. Lots of people have been injured. One fatality as of now. One of those injured just emerged from a hospital in New Jersey and spoke to reporters.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. QUESTION: Can you tell us, you get this call, Alexis (ph) is injured, you had a baby (ph) involved, who did you -- what was going through your mind, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I'm just her cousin. That's her mom back there.

QUESTION: What was going through your mind, mom?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm nerves of steel. I don't know, I was just happy she was OK, because when we got the call, they were just screaming, Alexis -- the train crashed and Alexis was on it. So our family is very dramatic. But when I heard that it was just a head injury, I was happy. I was happy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We got the call time it was on the news. It was --

QUESTION: And you rushed right here, I'm assuming?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Yes. I was in Brooklyn. I flew from Brooklyn to here. It took like an hour.

QUESTION: And when you saw her in the hospital?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was relieved. You're relieved to hear she's alive, because we heard that -- she was saying that the people behind her, she didn't know if they made it because the train was collapsing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Couldn't even see them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So it was just a matter of timing. So it was just excellent timing.

QUESTION: I'm sure you were thinking about your grandbaby.


QUESTION: Mom, did you cry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I was in the thing, I had to -- because my -- I was in getting a procedure done when it happened. So I had to take nerve pills and everything to stop, like, shaking because you don't know --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, until I spoke to her. But she's good. She's alive.

QUESTION: What's your first name, mom?


QUESTION: Thank you, ma'am.

QUESTION: How do you spell Janette.


[13:20:00] QUESTION: And your last name?

QUESTION: Is it Valle as well?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, Valley, v-a-l-l-e.

QUESTION: Alexis --

QUESTION: Where do you live, (INAUDIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bakerfield (ph), New Jersey.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much.

QUESTION: Do you live together?


Thank you. Thank you so much.

QUESTION: Alexis, speedy recovery.


BLITZER: All right, let's get some analysis. Once again, the former managing director of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, Peter Goelz is with us. Our CNN government regulations correspondent Rene Marsh has joined us. And from Charleston, South Carolina, Mary Schiavo, CNN aviation analyst, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Peter, that eyewitness we just spoke to, the passenger who was in the first -- first cabin, if you will, Jamie Weatherhead-Sole (ph), she said that train never slowed as it was coming into Hoboken, coming into that station. She takes that commuter train she says every single morning. It was rush hour. About 8:45 a.m. And the train just was going at its regular speed as it came into that station and it then -- it then crashed.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Sure. And that will be documented in the engine -- the event recorder that's in the engine of the train. So we'll know exactly what the speed was and we'll know exactly what the speed should have been.

BLITZER: What other possible causes why that train did not slow down, why the brakes were not applied?

GOELZ: Well, it could have been anything from the brakes could have failed. That's unusual, but the brakes could have failed. It could have been that the driver was distracted. We saw that in a recent Amtrak where the driver was apparently distracted as he entered a turn. It could be a health issue for the operator. I mean there's any number of things. BLITZER: There's one engineer who's responsible, right? There's not --

GOELZ: That's correct.

BLITZER: There's not a back -- why aren't there two in case let's say an engineer, you know, falls asleep or passes out or has a heart attack? Shouldn't there be two people, two engineers up front in case there's a problem with one?

GOELZ: Well, that's -- that's an issue that's being debated right now.

BLITZER: Why is it even being debated?

GOELZ: Well, because the evidence -- yes, the evidence --

BLITZER: You've got hundreds of people who are -- who are at risk on a train like that and there should be more than one.

GOELZ: The evidence doesn't show that a second person in the cab really gives you increased safety over the long haul.

BLITZER: But I don't understand. But -- we don't know the cause --

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: But what if that -- that engineer passed out or fell asleep?

GOELZ: Well, there are -- there are redundant systems --

BLITZER: If there was a second person in that --

GOELZ: That's --

BLITZER: In that engine -- in that front car, somebody could do something about it.

GOELZ: That's right. But there are also -- there's, you know, a dead man's stick where if he suddenly becomes incapacitated and is not responding, the engine -- the train comes to a halt as well.

BLITZER: Rene, what are you hearing from your sources?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that the NTSB, we heard from them just at the end of the last hour, they are on their way there. Really their priority, two things, the event recorder that Peter just talked about because we're going to get hard information about what was happening in those final minutes before the train crashed. They'll be looking to get that. That will be brought back to Washington, D.C. They'll do the analysis.

Also, that engineer's going to have some very critical information as well. We don't know exactly what condition he is in health wise, but these investigators will want to get to him ASAP because in those first few hours, that is the critical time, because you don't want a situation where he's hearing other scenarios from other people. You want to get to that engineer as soon as you get to the scene and he is able to talk because his recollection is going to be the clearest. So that's their objective when they get there.

Of course the teams will span out. They'll be looking at various things. They're going to look at the track. They're going to look at the train. How was it performing? They're going to look at this engineer's work hours. What were -- what was his schedule before this actual incident? Did he get enough sleep? What was he doing before he reported to the shift? Of course, they're also going to want to do toxicology reports -- tests, I should say, to check, you know, you know, is there any alcohol or any other substances involved.

So the NTSB has a lot of work ahead of them. Not even on the ground yet. So I do expect some time before we start getting definitive answers. But I guarantee you once they get that recorder, we're going to know exactly how fast that train was going from the moment it left that last train station to the moment that it crashed.

BLITZER: Yes, there have been train crashes because of the engineer fell asleep or got sick and, obviously, there's no backup if there's only one engineer responsible, not two.

MARSH: And also, in 2001, it -- excuse me, 2011, interestingly enough, at this very same train station, there was also a crash. The NTSB investigated that one. Very similar in that --

BLITZER: What did they determine the cause?

MARSH: They determined the cause was that this -- the engineer of that train did not control the speed. The NTSB also said a contributing factor was lack of PTC, which is essentially a technology that would automatically slow the train.

BLITZER: All right.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is joining us on the phone right now. He's the ranking member on the subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development.

[13:25:04] What are you hearing, senator? What are the possible causes for this crash?

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY (via telephone): Well, we don't know the causes yet. And, you know, I spoke to Sara Fineburg (ph), who's the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose team from region one is already there, inspection and investigations. She's on her way there, as well as you've reported, the National Transportation Safety Board, which will be there this afternoon.

But, you know, they're going to be looking at everything. Obviously, the possibility of mechanical malfunction, human error, whether that's distraction, illness, anything else, why it was going at the speed it was. And, you know, and we have significant structural damage at the terminal, including the specific track that this was over, is over the PATH tunnel. And so the integrity of the floor and ceiling above the PATH tunnel is a critical question here because tens of thousands of riders go through that daily into New York City and back and commutes to New Jersey. So we may have a difficult transit issue I think for the next several days until the structural issues are resolved.

BLITZER: You just heard Rene Marsh, our government regulation correspondent, reported that a train crash had occurred at the very same train station in Hoboken back in 2011, was the result of the engineer not slowing down that train for whatever reason. The -- and I've covered a lot of these kinds of train crashes where there is a human error, if you will. The engineer might fall asleep or pass out or get sick or whatever. Shouldn't there be two engineers responsible when so many hundreds of people potentially are at risk?

MENENDEZ: Well, that's a question of debate. I'm a believer it should be. I also know that there are technological advances that have been made. Some in the cabin itself. One of the ones that I'm a huge advocate of is positive train control status, which can technologically slow and shut the -- the speed of the plane -- excuse me, of the train down when it is out of speed in a zone that it should be in. And I think that's critically important.

Unfortunately, my understanding is that New Jersey Transit, based on the most recent status report they've given to the Federal Railroad Administration, which covered the first half of 2016, says they had zero locomotives equipped with positive train control, zero segments equipped and zero radio towers installed. In essence really not having made any progress on positive train control. So that's an issue that clearly has to be addressed.

BLITZER: Another issue that comes up every time there's a train crash like this is the cameras up front. The cameras usually show where the train is heading, an outside view, but it doesn't show what's happening inside where the engineer is. Certainly doesn't show the face, the engineer himself or herself. And there's been a lot of suggestions over the years you need cameras in that cabin as well for review if there is a crash to see what the engineer was doing. But apparently the unions have resisted that. Where do you stand, Senator Menendez, on that issue?

MENENDEZ: I believe that safety is job one and anything that promotes the ability to promote that safety and to understand the consequences of a crash when it takes place so it doesn't happen again is critically important. So I'm for every provision that we -- whether it be positive train control, you know, auxiliary opportunities to have another engineer in the cabin, or the ability to review the operations of that engineer is critically important. I mean I ride the train every week back and forth from New Jersey to my job in Washington, D.C., and I think that's a critically important element (ph).

BLITZER: Yes, I agree with you completely. It's so important. The frustration I have is every time I cover one of these train crashes, we always talk about the cameras. We always talk about a second person up front to help out. And, unfortunately, it never seems to change. You guys have a lot of work to do.

Senator Menendez, thanks very much for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. BLITZER: Coming up, we're waiting for a press conference from the city

of Hoboken, New Jersey. Top officials there are getting ready to brief us on the deadly train crash. We're going to bring that to you live, of course.

And turning to politics, we've got some other news we're following. A no vote is a vote for Donald Trump. That's the message coming from top Democrats. The big question, will President Obama's coalition cast their vote for Hillary Clinton? She's scheduled to hold a rally just moments from now. We'll have a live report on how she's trying to woo millennials.

[13:29:52] Lots of news coming into CNN. We'll update you. That's coming up.