Woman hit by train remains critically ill

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 09:59 26/02/2013
Fairfax NZ

Two people were struck by a freight train in Auckland yesterday morning after the wheelchair got stuck on the railway track.

Train
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ Zoom
The wheelchair lies on its side at the scene of the crash, while a St John staff member speaks to a woman with an injured foot.

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A 23-year-old woman remains in a critical condition in Auckland City Hospital after being hit by a train when her wheelchair got stuck in tracks yesterday.

The police serious crash unit is investigating and speaking with witnesses about the incident at Morningside Station which took place about 9am.

The woman became stuck when crossing the tracks while the barrier arms were up. Bystanders struggled to free her as the arms came down and bells sounded the rapid approach of a freight train.

With the warning bells ringing and the woman making urgent, panicked sounds, architecture graduate Matthieu Mereau said time slowed almost to a halt as he tried to focus on what he had to do.

"I just wanted to move her out of the way, " he said, describing his decision to tip the woman from her chair as the train drew near. "There was no time to do anything else."

Mereau was on his way to work in Kingsland yesterday morning when he saw the young woman's electric wheelchair get trapped in the tracks.

"I could see there was no way she was going to be able to move by herself. I went over and said, 'I'll help you, I'll get you out'," he said.

"But then the barrier arms started to come down and the bells began to ring and then the situation became horrible."

Panicking, and unable to move the chair, Mereau, 24, called to a passing jogger for help.

"I asked her if she could give me a hand and we tried to move the wheelchair but it was really hard . . . then the train was coming and it was almost on us."

Mereau said the pair struggled with the chair as long as they could, becoming increasingly frantic as the noise of the engine drew closer.

"There was a lot of stuff on her lap, including a screen and I thought she might have been belted in . . . so I decided not to pull her out . . . it was a split-second decision.

"I was just trying to focus, to forget about the train, just to move her out of the way. It was kind of happening in a way in which I could see everything slowly."

When they tipped the chair, Mereau checked to see her body was free of the tracks before he jumped out of the way.

"She fell clear but the wheelchair was still on the tracks, " he said. "That got caught by the train. The lady was still close to the wheelchair so she got dragged along . . ."

While Mereau was unhurt, the jogger who helped him injured her leg. He said the whole incident was over within a minute, and he was still trying to process it last night.

"It was so close. I'm still shaking. I can't even think about it properly.

"What I didn't realise was that I was in real danger, it would have been so easy for me to be pulled under the wheels."

The jogger was treated by ambulance staff and Mereau was checked for injuries and shock, but was mainly concerned about the injured woman.

"I'm not the one that got hurt. I just want to know that she made it through."

Other bystanders described watching Mereau try to free the woman as surreal.

"I just saw her trying to wrestle the mobility scooter free . . . then a superman jumped on to the track to try and help her, " an onlooker called Megan said.

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"I just sat in the car for a minute saying 'Did that really happen'?"

A man who was waiting to cross the tracks in his car said the freight train was not due to stop at Morningside Station and so was approaching at speed.

"You could see it was hard on the brakes . . . the horn was going but there was no screeching, " he said.

KiwiRail had started an investigation, a spokeswoman said.

The company would "quickly put in place any findings where improvements need to be made to the crossing".

The crossing was upgraded in mid-2011 and since then there has been no other incidents.

The accident yesterday prompted calls for more disabled-friendly crossings.

Albert-Eden local board member Graeme Easte said the accident showed Auckland Transport needed to urgently consider grade level separation at railway crossings. Grade separation refers to having bridges or tunnels over or under the line.

- Auckland Now

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