Passengers recall ordeal on Metro-North train
Hours after hiking in the Shawangunk Mountains, Emily Sheskin and two friends sat on a motionless Metro-North train undergoing the five stages of grief.
Denial: “At first, we were like: This is fine. Nothing is wrong. It’s just a small hiccup,’ ” said Sheskin.
Anger: “What is going on? I have a full day. We were trying to get back early. What is this?”
Bargaining: “I heard a man say that he was going to call his credit card concierge service and that they would probably send a car for him or help him out of this, which is crazy.”
Depression: “Are we ever going to get through this?”
Acceptance: “This is our home now.”
That home was a Metro-North train that departed Poughkeepsie for Grand Central Terminal at 2:51 p.m. on July 9, just as a freakish storm began to release, at rate of up to 2 inches per hour, rain that would dislodge rocks and debris onto the Hudson Line’s tracks and cause flooding that submerged them in water.
For hours on Sunday the train sat derelict by the Manitou station, as its engine failed, the tracks between Croton-Harmon and Poughkeepsie became impassable and flooded roads prevented buses from rescuing passengers.
Julie Napolin remembers running through the rain, just after 3 p.m., to catch the train at the station in Beacon, where she lives. She’s not sure if the train had stopped at Garrison or Manitou when people’s phones began sounding with alerts about the weather.
“I think the moral of the story is that our rain is now very extreme,” said Napolin, who would be on the train for the next five hours. “And if it’s raining cats and dogs, don’t get on the train.”
While Sheskin and her friends were returning to New York City after a hiking weekend, Napolin caught the train to see a show in the city. The passengers also included a couple on their way to catch an Air France flight for their honeymoon, according to tweets about the incident.
On Monday, Metro-North posted pictures of the damage the train headed toward, including tracks subsumed by water and washed-out beds.
Napolin and Sheskin said passengers were told that when the train first stopped south of the Manitou station that it was because a boulder had fallen on the tracks. Sheskin suspected that they actually meant rocks dislodged by the rain.
“We were like: ‘A boulder? What?’ ” she said.
The train began moving north back toward Manitou when its engine died, according to Napolin and Sheskin, who believe that rain damaged it. Without the engine, the train lost air conditioning and working bathrooms.
“Once the engine died, that’s when we’re basically just in a tin can with emergency lights,” said Sheskin.
So began the wait for a replacement engine from Croton-Harmon to tow the train. Passengers hoped buses were being deployed to pick them up, but police and first responders were already closing roads in the Highlands because of flooding.
“At that point, I didn’t really understand how how bad things were, and I imagined that I would just get off and go home,” said Napolin. Two hours had already passed as the train returned to the Manitou station. Both she and Sheskin were still hours from going home.
Inside the train, Napolin texted a friend who agreed to pick her up, but the friend had to wait in limbo on Route 9D because the train’s staff had no clear answer about when or where they would be allowed to disembark.
Aaron Donovan, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North’s parent agency, said on Wednesday (July 12) that “options during this ‘1,000-year storm’” were limited because of road closures in the area and impassable tracks.
“MTA Police Department commanders on scene believed the best place for the train’s customers was on board the train,” he said.
With the air conditioning off, the temperature rose. Toilets filled and people became hungry and thirsty. Sheskin and her friends had leftover snacks and water from their hiking trip. The train’s two conductors also handed out water in packaging that resembled “juice boxes,” the only water they gave out, she said.
In the space between train cars, passengers found signals for their cellphones. One person tried to reach a supervisor at the MTA and others called the police, said Napolin. The stoppage inspired speculation: Were they being prevented from getting off for liability reasons? Shouldn’t passengers be allowed to leave if they wanted to?
Sheskin took a picture of a misted-up window on which someone scribbled “Help.” Napolin said she heard that some passengers suggested shattering the emergency glass so they could escape — “breaking and exiting” instead of “breaking and entering.”
“At this point, factions are developing; people are banding together,” said Napolin, laughing.
Passengers also helped each other. A woman who claimed to work for the state called her boss, who then reached Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office, said Sheskin. Other people shared phones and chargers. “New Yorkers are the best in that regard,” she said.
Eventually, around 8 p.m., a woman announced over the intercom that she was with the MTA police and that passengers were going to be allowed to exit through the first car in order to stretch. Napolin said that there were police “everywhere” when she descended the train’s stairs at Manitou and reached the ground.
She walked, in the drizzle, to Manitou Station Road and then up to Route 9D, where she found her friend waiting. Along Route 9D, police were prohibiting cars from traveling north and “a long caravan of cars” waited to go south, said Napolin.
For Sheskin, home was still hours away. Passengers were told at 9 p.m. that a rescue train would arrive in 45 minutes, but it did not come until more than an hour later, she said.
The train started moving at 10:30 p.m. and arrived at Croton-Harmon at 11:21, said Sheskin. When the conductor walked through the cars to inform passengers of the next steps, the passengers clapped for him in appreciation, she said.
The train to which Sheskin and her friends transferred at Croton-Harmon had working air conditioning and bathrooms, but did not leave right away. So, one friend scheduled an Uber, which drove them to New York City. Sheskin arrived home at 1:15 a.m. on Monday.
“As horrible as it was, it renewed my faith in humanity,” said Sheskin. “People stepped up, which was really nice to see.”