By Michael Cunningham, Dec. 9, 2013
The Metro-North commuter train departed Poughkeepsie as usual at 5:54 am on Sunday, Dec. 1, on its route south toward New York City. It made nine scheduled stops before derailing at about 7:20 am while rounding a bend along the Hudson River where the Henry Hudson Bridge connects the Bronx and the northern tip of Manhattan. All eight train cars derailed, leaving four passengers dead and over 70 more injured. The lead car of the train plowed through the brush along the side of the river and came to rest with its forward edge just barely touching the water; several of the other passenger cars rolled violently, ejecting some passengers before coming to rest on their sides. For New York City’s emergency responders, a critical incident was under way.
Critical Incident Response
New York City, along with every other major urban area, has plans in place to respond to critical incidents. Immediately following a major incident such as a train derailment, the Incident Command System (ICS) is initiated by responders. ICS is important tool used for the command, control and coordination of emergency response. ICS allows responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines to effectively communicate and work together in a single coordinated effort to resolve the incident at hand. As part of the ICS structure at the train derailment, an investigative command post was established so the investigation into the incident could be coordinated simultaneously with the rescue effort.
When critical incidents occur, it is extremely important that the investigative process start immediately. Identities of those involved, the deceased and injured must be positively made; statements must be recorded; surveillance video and evidence seized; and the possibilities of criminal activity or an act of terrorism must be considered.
Perhaps most important to the ultimate goal of identifying the cause of the incident is the documentation of the scene and the physical evidence before it becomes lost, altered or destroyed. Although incidents involving railroads are investigated by experts at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), those investigators rely on local law enforcement in the early hours of the on-scene investigation to record the scene and begin the investigative process. NTSB has “Go Teams” that respond expeditiously to serious incidents, but it takes time for their teams to arrive onsite from Washington and begin their work. This is where the experience of a well-trained crime or accident scene investigator comes into play.
Crime and accident scene investigators are well versed in using a systematic and methodical approach to documenting and recording scene conditions. The process they follow includes methodical photography, contemporaneous note taking and forensic mapping. These three steps combine to accurately record the scene as discovered.
The scene of the train derailment posed some difficult challenges for forensic mapping. The site was along a river embankment with limited access, steep terrain and marsh areas. The derailed cars posed line of sight issues, and the work had to be conducted simultaneously with other aspects of the response. Since the rail line involved is one of the nation’s busiest lines, time was also of the essence. The team would have only one shot to accurately map the scene, and it had to be right.
Fast, Accurate Accident Scene Documentation
Since New York City’s crime scene and accident investigators are already experienced in the use of Leica total stations, the decision by those in charge of the forensic investigation was to deploy CSIs to operate two Leica Viva TS15i Robotic Imaging Stations to handle the forensic mapping at the site. The positions of each of the eight rail cars, multiple rail lines including the damaged rails, and structural and topographic features were all accurately recorded. The robotic features of the instruments allowed for remote measurement of areas otherwise difficult to reach, and the forensic mapping work was completed within several hours. With the injured having been tended to and the scene properly recorded, the process of removing the damaged train cars and restoring rail service was able to begin.
NTSB will follow a comprehensive and exhaustive process before the exact cause of the incident is determined; however, early indications make it clear that speed appears to be the major contributing factor. According to NTSB statements, the train may have been traveling in excess of 80 mph as it entered the curve with a speed restriction of 30 mph. The NYPD and Bronx District Attorney’s Office have announced a criminal probe of the incident.
Whatever the final cause is determined to be, those affected by the incident can be assured that a proper investigation can proceed and that the investigation will be based in part on solid scene documentation work by New York’s CSIs and highly accurate robotic total stations.
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About the author: After a 26 year career, Mike Cunningham retired from the New York City Police Department in 2012 as a Detective 1st Grade and the senior ranking Investigator in the Crime Scene Unit. In addition to his many years of CSI experience, he was a forensics instructor for the NYPD and is a Certified Instructor for Department of Homeland Security course “Advanced Forensics for Hazardous Environments” and “Integrated Response to WMD Incidents” As a contractor for the U.S. State Department, he served as an International Police Instructor for “Forensic Examination of Terrorist Crime Scenes” delivered to US anti-terrorism partner nations. Mike served his country with distinction and professionalism for ten months at Ground Zero in the aftermath of September 11th. He is an IAI Certified Crime Scene Investigator and a New York State Certified Police Instructor.