On Thursday, Sept. 29, Allie Cai boarded the New Jersey Transit train from Secaucus, NJ to Hoboken, NJ for another day of work.
She just graduated from CAS with a degree in Economics, and she commutes every single day on this route to reach her job in Manhattan; once in Hoboken, she transfers to the PATH Train.
This was Cai’s first time on the train at 7:44 a.m. — she normally takes the one that comes ten minutes beforehand. That one is an express train.
She and her dog sat in the second car, because the first car, as she pointed out, is the quiet car.
At approximately 8:45 a.m., people began to rise from their seats as the train approached the station, with commuters, such as the woman sitting next to Cai, wanting to get off quickly. Once the woman got up, Cai placed her dog Addie on the seat next to her and stayed put.
In retrospect, she thought, this was a very good decision on her part.
“I was seated in the first half of the second car in the last row, so I was in a seat where I didn’t have a window, but I was looking outside,” Cai said. “We pulled into the train station, and I just got a feeling — I was just like this train didn’t really slow down, I feel like it’s going way too fast right now — aren’t we almost there?”
It all happened within milliseconds.
Cai fell into the seat in front of her. The lights turned out. Boom. Boom. The 7:44 New Jersey commuter train had crashed into Hoboken Terminal, a crash that would result in the death of a 34-year-old woman and injure more than another 100 people.
“There were two people right next to me who were injured,” Cai said. “A woman sat down next to me, and I looked at her, and she was just bleeding out of her head. Her hair was just covered in blood, it was dripping down her face, and I didn’t have anything to give her, so some of the other people gave her a tissue.”
Only after a while did she realize Addie — a small, anxious dog with thin legs — had fallen off the seat. Both were unscathed, and Cai felt fortunate that she just hit the soft seat in front of her.
“I ended up walking out towards the back of my car, so I got out on the third car but heard that there were some people in my car and the car in front of me that came out through the emergency window,” Cai said. “I just went out of the car, but it was derailed, so there was a huge gap between the train and the platform.”
She said that because the third car was derailed, it was not aligned with the second car, and she had to squeeze past it to leave the wreck. When she got out, Cai said, it was pure chaos. “It was just a really really messy scene,” she said.
In the moment, Cai just wanted to get to her office so that both she and her dog could not only get to a safer place but also to simply calm down. Her first thought was to make it to the PATH train and to get into Manhattan, because she was concerned that it might shut down. If it did close, she said she would be stranded in Hoboken.
“I’m pretty sure I got on the last PATH train that was going into the city, because it’s about a 15 minute train ride,” Cai said. “By the time I got to Manhattan, I looked at my phone, and I saw an update from the NJ transit that PATH trains were suspended, and they tweeted that 15 minutes beforehand, so I’m pretty sure I was on the last PATH train.”
Once at work, Cai’s coworkers were shocked — one of her coworker’s daughters was in the PATH station when the crash occurred and thought the boom was a terrorist attack in light of recent events.
“They offered to let me go home, but I decided I wanted to work the whole day,” Cai said. “I knew if I went home, I would sit there and think about it all day, and I just really wanted something to do.”
Her family and friends called, texted and got in touch with her throughout the day to make sure she was okay, and she said that she was thankful to know that so many people cared about her. Her company even paid for a car to take her home at the end of the day, and Cai said that with a probably chaotic commuting situation, her company let her work from home tomorrow.
But throughout the day, she kept thinking about her daily commute and all the factors that could have gone wrong today.
She saw one of the seatbacks entirely pushed over, and most of those injured were people who stood as they anticipated arriving at the station. Cai said that she kept thinking of where would be a safe place to sit if she ever rode the train again: not her usual seat that faces other passengers, not the edges and especially not anywhere in between cars.
“When it first happened, I was sitting there and I freaked out and I burst into tears and I was crying,” Cai said.
Cai doesn’t know what will be happening next week, or even tomorrow. She’s just thankful she’s here today.
Email Diamond Naga Siu at [email protected]