SAN BRUNO (CBS SF) — Federal investigators meticulously combed through debris Saturday following a violent crash between a Caltrain engine and construction equipment that injured 13 people and disrupted rail service between stations of South San Francisco and Millbrae.
A team of six National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the scene Friday morning to begin investigating the collision. Caltrain said it would not remove the damaged train or begin track repairs until the NTSB gave the go-ahead.
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“The place where the train hit and the vehicles came to rest was over 500 feet away, so they hit pretty hard,” National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Lansberg said. “One of the vehicles had its fuel tank punctured and that was the source of the fire. The fire did not start from the locomotive itself.
Lansberg told reporters that among the investigative tools the NTSB will use will be video from an engine camera.
“This is going to be extremely helpful to us as we establish what happened in this crash,” he said.
The investigation team plans to be at the collision site for several days to collect all perishable evidence related to the crash. Additional data collection of approximately three months will be followed by an analysis period which may take 15-18 months before a final report on the incident is published.
The lane closure in the area continued to impact commuters on the peninsula. The system had only 69 trains in service compared to the usual 104 trains.
Caltrain pilot Worthington Foster discovered the collision and the delays it was causing when he boarded Caltrain on Friday morning. Samtrans buses carried passengers between South San Francisco and Millbrae stations, causing delays.
“It would have been nice to know ahead of time that I would have that extra stop,” Foster said.
“I came here, I didn’t know what was going on. Someone told me about it, so I was like, “Oh, okay,” said Andrea Xu, another Caltrain driver. “It’s just a little confusing and a little hectic.”
The bus bridge will be in place until at least 4 p.m. Friday. For the rest of the system, Caltrain will continue to operate on its regular weekday schedule. Passengers traveling between South San Francisco and Millbrae stations should expect service delays due to the bus bridge.
Passengers can also find other transit options by visiting 511.org.
Caltrain officials said the equipment involved in the collision was part of the system’s ongoing electrification project, but should not have been on the tracks as the commuter train with 75 passengers approached on board.
“All equipment should have been cleared from the tracks as the trains passed,” Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman said. “We did construction on the tracks throughout the electrification. This is under investigation.
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Neighbors who live near the crash site told KPIX 5 that it was not uncommon to see workers near the tracks.
“These guys work this whole line every day,” said area resident Larry Valencia. “I know they’re very safety conscious and all that, but why was that train flying over that track where the truck was?”
This will be one of many questions that federal investigators will try to answer.
“There are guards on site communicating with dispatch, but ultimately it’s unclear where the outage occurred,” Lieberman said. “It’s not exactly a happy day, but we’re glad it’s not worse than it is.”
Caltrain officials said a total of 13 people were injured in the crash, but none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening. San Bruno fire officials said five of those injured, including two Caltrain employees, were transported to area hospitals.
“Our deepest thoughts and condolences go out to everyone who was injured today,” Caltrain Acting Executive Director Michelle Bouchard said in a statement released by the agency.
Early Friday morning, commuters on the rail line between San Jose and San Francisco were forced to use a bus bridge between South San Francisco and Millbrae stations. SamTrans and BART also helped each other.
The collision near Scott Street in San Bruno happened around 10:38 a.m. when the train struck two pieces of equipment on the track.
The force of the impact ripped through the equipment, with the burning cabin remaining in front of the engine and another large piece of wreckage coming to rest several cars behind. Burning gasoline was visible under several cars.
Passengers told KPIX about the terrifying moments that followed.
“It was pretty chaotic. There was maybe 15 seconds where nobody knew what to do,” Jesse Miller told KPIX 5. “Some people started opening the emergency exits through the windows. actually jumped out of the windows.
Miller posted an image on Twitter of the fireball moments after the crash.
— Jesse Miller (@Texosporium) March 10, 2022
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“I saw a worker who was taken away in an ambulance. He looked like he had severe cuts and bruises,” said Caltrain passenger Elizabeth Tom. “I saw another passenger, he had a gash in his eye.”