A loose piece of rail sent part of a packed subway train jumping from the tracks and careening into a wall in Harlem on Tuesday — forcing hundreds to crawl out into the tunnel to safety and crippling service citywide.
Thirty-four straphangers were treated for minor injuries — among them a little baby — after two cars of the Brooklyn-bound A train struck a piece of replacement rail that was stored on the tracks outside the 125th St. station about 9:45 a.m., authorities said.
“The train was peeled open like a can opener,” said Paul Navarro, track division chairman for the Transport Workers Union, after visiting the accident site.
Straphangers described a harrowing scene as the train came to a screeching halt, sending sparks flying into the air and smoke pouring into the darkened cars.
After being trapped for several minutes, panicked riders on the A train and a trailing D train broke windows on their subway cars and climbed out onto the tracks.
“I had to jump out,” said Emma Virani, 27, of Brooklyn, who was on the D train.
The derailment marked the latest in a series of subway accidents that have caused chaos underground and prompted calls for a full overhaul of the aging system. The City Council announced Tuesday that its Transportation Committee will hold an oversight hearing to “closely examine where the MTA has fallen short.”
Kelly Kopp, 48, said he heard what sounded like a “huge explosion” before the A train came to an abrupt stop.
“It was enough to scare the heck out of us and for me to think I could die in this train,” said Kopp, a photographer who was on his way downtown.
“As soon as the train stopped, people started screaming. And that was really terrifying because I thought some fire was going to start shooting through the train. And then people were throwing up, too, from the smoke.”
Gov. Cuomo introduced a bill last week that would give him control of the MTA board to address ongoing issues with the subway system. But neither Cuomo nor Mayor de Blasio showed up at the accident site.
Newly minted MTA Chairman Joe Lhota held a hastily convened news conference and said in a statement late Tuesday that “the cause appears to be human error, not a track defect.”
The preliminary investigation found that the morning mayhem was caused by “an improperly secured piece of replacement rail that was stored on the tracks,” according to Lhota and interim MTA executive director Ronnie Hakim.
Work on the track had taken place over night and the old rail and unused pieces of the replacement rail were secured correctly in the center of the track, according to TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen, who was briefed on the derailment by union officials.
Lhota, on just his fifth day on the job, added that the smoke condition was caused by debris on the tracks that went up in flames.
Seventeen riders were treated at hospitals for smoke inhalation and other minor ailments. The other half were treated at the scene, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Among those hospitalized was a baby boy named Yousef, who was covered in sweat and clad only in a diaper.
“There was a mother in distress. Her baby was hot and crying,” said FDNY Emergency Medical Technician Tuanika Brown who reached them at the 135th St. station.
Brown and her colleagues gave oxygen to the baby and his asthmatic mother before they were taken to Harlem Hospital for evaluation.
“The baby and her are doing fine,” Brown said.
Following the derailment, three other trains were stuck in tunnels between 110th St. and 135th St., trapping roughly 1,300 people. About 500 scrambled onto the pitch-black tracks, prompting a massive response from first responders, Nigro said.
About 200 firefighters and 100 cops rushed underground to shepherd them to safety. It took more than an hour for all of the riders to make it above ground, officials said.
“It’s a very dangerous thing to be on the tracks,” Nigro said.
Motorman Christopher Miller, 44, was being interviewed Tuesday by safety inspectors and underwent a drug and alcohol screening, according to officials.
The incident crippled the subway system during the morning rush hour — knocking out service on the B and C lines and large swaths of the A and D lines.
Service was fully restored on the C line by 5 p.m., but the A, B and D lines were all operating on a limited basis.
The MTA said the derailment caused signal, switch and track damage — and employees would be working through the night in a bid to restore normal service for the morning rush.
The out-of-control train left a trail of bent and twisted track parts, according to photos obtained by the Daily News. “It took down pieces of wall,” the TWU’s Navarro said.
Passenger Kirk James, 42, said the derailed A train came to a jarring halt while it was pulling into the 125th St. station.
Then the smell of smoke wafted into the car.
“People started panicking . . . we can’t open the doors. No one knows what to do,” said James, an NYU professor.
James eventually made it to the platform by walking to the front of the train. Along the way, he saw dazed riders on the tracks being aided by firefighters. “People are crying, people are grateful to be alive, but no one knows what just happened,” James said.