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Danger of falling rocks worries Astoria residents

“She was walking on the sidewalk and...

By Alex Ginsberg

Danny Kopsias was relaxing in his 27th Street home, watching television shortly after midnight two weekends ago, when a rock fell five stories from the elevated Amtrak trestle above, barely missing his wife, Toppa.

“She was walking on the sidewalk and not even a foot away the rock fell,” Kopsias said. “She came in and said ‘They almost killed me!’”

Kopsias is one of several Astoria residents to complain to Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) about the recent mysterious stream of rocks falling from the tracks, thought to be the work of neighborhood miscreants.

Trains out of New England race across the towering red trestle that spans the East River from the Bronx and Randalls Island, then snake their way eastward through a narrow swath of Astoria, descending as they curve slowly south and then west back toward the Sunnyside rail yards and Manhattan.

For the residents of Astoria whose homes abut the trestle’s massive stone uprights, the pranks are terrifying and troublesome.

Vallone said about 10 calls were received by his office complaining about thrown-rock incidents that occurred over the June 28-29 weekend. Although no one was hurt, Vallone said cars and rooftops sustained serious damage.

But the councilman was more dismayed at what the incidents suggested about Amtrak’s security.

“It was probably just kids,” he said. “But the fact that anyone could get up there on a bridge that spans the river is completely unacceptable.”

Dan Stessel, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the passenger rail company took the complaints very seriously.

“Incidents of trespassing we deal with all the time,” Stessel said. “But when trespassers are throwing rocks onto people below and there is the potential for injury, it is a matter that we elevate and deal with very aggressively.”

He said Amtrak’s response included stepping up patrols by Amtrak police on foot, in vehicles and by helicopter. Those patrols, he said, would be drawn from Amtrak’s pool of 70 to 90 officers assigned to Penn Station, Stessel said.

But if past experience is any guide, that response may stop the problem, but only until it recurs in a few years. Kopsias, who has lived on 27th Street for a quarter century, said such incidents have been a fairly regular problem. A rock almost hit his son during the 1980s, he said.

And Vallone, after consulting with staffers from his father’s long tenure representing the same district, said the problem has occurred off and on for at least 15 years — most frequently in late June, just after the end of the school year.

One resident, Peter, who refused to give his last name, admitted to having climbed onto the tracks a decade ago as a high school student.

“We’d do graffiti, throw stuff,” he said. “I even got shot at by Amtrak police.”

He said the preferred method for gaining access to the trestle, which stands higher than the two- and three-story homes to its sides, is to enter at a point where the tracks run closer to the ground. The would-be trespasser must then walk a mile or more to reach the point where the tracks are high off the ground.

One such point was found easily on a recent weekday afternoon. Only a chain-link fence, without barbed wire, and a small but steep embankment stood between the roadway and the tracks.

For most of its length, the trestle is wide enough to accommodate both Amtrak and freight tracks, so individuals can easily walk on it, Stessel said.

But in addition to the danger throwing rocks poses, he cautioned that simply being on the tracks is hazardous.

“Train schedules are unpredictable and the trains are very quiet now,” he said. “You’ve got 11,000 volts running overhead.”

Even maintenance crews, he said, ride out in cars from the Sunnyside yards rather than walk along the tracks.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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