WESTBURY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – What happened before two trains collided with a truck on the Long Island Rail Road tracksTuesday night, killing all three occupants of the vehicle?
Investigators on Wednesday were working tirelessly to piece together the evidence as crews continued working to repair the damage caused by the deadly crash.
Despite their efforts, the agency announced late Wednesday the railroad would continue to operate limited rush hour service Thursday morning.
Three men were killed in the fiery collision and everyone on the trains survived, even though several train cars were badly damaged after crashing into the platform.
MTA workers have been working all day trying to re-rail the train cars, the first step in getting the LIRR moving again on both tracks through Westbury.
Extraordinary damage to the concrete platform and train cars is still visible: A tragic portrait of how devastating it is when a car tries – and fails – to beat a moving train.
The concrete platform is partially crumbled, the derailed train cars mangled, and the passenger vehicle obliterated. Three lives were lost and two branches of the nation’s busiest commuter railroad crippled.
It’s all the result of what officials say was an avoidable tragedy.
“We can not this enough: Please do not try to beat the train,” said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. “There is nothing so important.”
It was 7:20 p.m. last night when a car that drove around closed gates was struck by a fast moving eastbound train, and then a Manhattan-bound train. One thousand panicked passengers were evacuated.
“The whole car, the train car, just shook very hard, and then the entire train came to a stop,” one passenger said.
Web Extra: LIRR President Philip Eng On Crash
The engineer and a passenger were trapped by flying concrete.
“The engineer did a great job. He saw the impact. When he hit the platform, he ran towards the rear away from it, almost like a movie scene, coming through the front. And there was also a civilian there that he pushed out of the way,” said Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder.
Seven passengers were sent to hospitals, including three with serious but not life-threatening injuries. Some passengers suffered spine injuries and internal bleeding, officials said.
As MTA crews worked through the day to re-rail the train, coworkers at the Fine Fair supermarket mourned three men they identified as the victims in the car. Jesus Hernandez, Saul Martinez, Miguel Luna were all employees. There’s a memorial and collection for their families at the checkout.
The three were seen on surveillance video Tuesday arriving for a barber shop haircut. They then headed to the bar next door, and later can be seen getting into their car just feet from the School Street railroad crossing.
Police confirm there was a crash in front of the closed gates moments before the train impact.
“There was a minor accident that did occur at the gate with the vehicles before the individuals left,” said Ryder. “The witness said that individual was involved in the accident and went around the gate.”
MTA President Fernando Ferrer paused to honor the victims at a board meeting.
“I’d like to ask for a moment of silence in remembrance of those people who died last night,” Ferrer said.
At the meeting, questions were raised about why gates don’t fully block cars from driving around.
“Whatever mechanism we put in not only safely prevents vehicles from being able to cross the tracks when the gates are down but also allows them to exit when the gates are down,” LIRR President Philip Eng said.
The MTA has an education campaign to warn drivers they can’t beat a moving train.
While fatal crashes are on the decline, there have been six in the last decade on Long Island.
Of 300 grade crossings, seven are being eliminated. For now, there are no estimates yet on how much it will cost to repair the 300 feet of concrete damaged and the train cars.
One MTA member suggested legislation to require the driver’s car insurance to pay for damage to the system like this.
“It’s too early to say,” when 100 percent service would be restored, Eng said.
Shuttle buses will supplement service in the interim.
“It’s an unfortunate situation. It’s a tragic situation. Why people risk their lives and risk other people’s lives perhaps to save a few minutes I can’t answer because I would never put myself in that situation,” Eng said. “MTA, Long Island Rail Road and our sister agencies are very focused on safety.”