Federal investigators are trying to determine why a woman driving a Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle stopped in the middle of railroad tracks, leading to the fiery crash of a New York commuter train in Westchester County that killed six people.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday there was no indication that crossing lights weren’t working at the grade crossing at Commerce Street in Valhalla, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of Midtown Manhattan.
“For reasons not precisely known at this time, but for reasons that we intend to find out, the SUV was stopped on the tracks,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said at a news briefing near the accident site.
More details will be available Thursday after investigators interview the Metro-North Railroad train crew and examine “event monitors” at the crossing and in the first car of the train, which burst into flames fueled by the vehicle’s gasoline, Sumwalt said.
Among the six killed was Eric Vandercar, 53, a senior managing director in institutional sales and trading at Mesirow Financial in New York, the firm said in an e-mailed statement. Also killed were Joseph Nadol, a 42-year-old JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive, and Walter Liedtke, 69, the curator in European paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The deadliest collision in Metro-North’s history occurred Feb. 3 after an evening rush-hour auto accident on the Taconic State Parkway. Cars were diverted, crossing the tracks. Gates came down atop the SUV, whose driver got out, got back in, then tried and failed to move forward, said Tony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents the engineer.
The train struck the trapped vehicle, killing the driver, Ellen Brody, a 49-year-old mother of three from Scarsdale, and triggering an explosion and fire that left the others dead on the train as the electrified third rail of the track pierced the rail car and set it ablaze.
About 400 feet of the steel rail was dislodged. Most of it came to rest in the train in 80-foot sections, Sumwalt said. At least one section penetrated the second car near its ceiling.
It’s not yet clear if the electricity to the track shut off automatically as it’s supposed to in an accident, Sumwalt said. Investigators are trying to determine why it became dislodged and whether it contributed to the severity of the casualties.
Grady Cothen, a rail safety expert and former Federal Railroad Administration safety official, said he couldn’t recall an instance when a third-rail punctured the floor of a passenger car.
“This is something of an unusual event,” Cothen said in a telephone interview. “Railroad car floors are already pretty robust and also tested to make sure that they will keep fire out, but if you puncture the floor you’ve eliminated an important defense.”
Of 12 victims taken to Westchester Medical Center, four had been discharged by 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and one remained in critical condition, said Ivan Miller, medical director of the hospital emergency room. All were in the front train car, he said.
The crash came 14 months after a fatal Metro-North accident in the Bronx, and obstructed a transit artery for thousands of workers. There is no service on the Harlem line between North White Plains and Pleasantville, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the railroad.
The express train was traveling about 60 mph before the emergency brakes were hit, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said in an interview Wednesday. The NTSB plans to release the officially measured speed Thursday, Sumwalt said.
Carl Fulgenzi, the town supervisor for Mount Pleasant, which includes Valhalla, said the victims were so badly burned the only way to identify them is with dental records.
“When they didn’t return home, their families contacted the police,” Astorino said.
In a small office complex across the street from the crash site, Nicole Sanders, a trainer at Ladimax Sports and Fitness, watched the flames from her second-story window.
Passengers swarmed “in droves, almost zombie like” to the parking lot, she said, and some headed inside to make phone calls and stay warm. A few were picked up by ambulances.
“It was like a bad, bad scene from a movie,” Sanders said.
Behind a barricade Wednesday morning, the eight-car train sat on the tracks next to the Kensico Cemetery. Fire and smoke damage completely blackened the interior of the lead car with singe marks licking out of the tops of doors and windows. Cars after the first appeared undamaged.
Trains between Pleasantville and North White Plains were to remain suspended “until further notice,” according to a statement posted on the Metro-North website. Limited service for buses and trains will be available for Upper Harlem Line customers, it said.
There will be shuttle trains between Wassaic and Southeast stations with bus connections to Beacon Station on the Hudson Line for train service to Grand Central. There will be limited train service to Goldens Bridge with bus connections directly to North White Plains Station.
Tuesday’s accident came after a Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx in December 2013, killing four passengers and injuring 63. The engineer in that accident had a sleeping disorder, the NTSB said in October.
U.S. investigators said last year that Metro-North lacked “safety culture.”
Railroad management failed to investigate damaged tracks and follow its own safety protocols, the NTSB said in a report released Nov. 19.
The type of intersection where Tuesday’s accident occurred, a grade crossing, has a bloody history.
Six people were killed and 16 were injured when a tractor- trailer failed to stop at a grade crossing and hit an Amtrak passenger train in Miriam, Nevada, in 2011.
The accident prompted NTSB to call on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration to develop a plan to help states improve safety. The administration said in a May 1, 2013, letter to NTSB that it was still working on it.
New York has 5,304 grade crossings, according to U.S. Representative for New York, Sean Patrick Maloney. There were 81 accidents, 15 deaths and 23 injuries at grade crossings from 2012 through 2014, according to Maloney.
The MTA is the largest U.S. mass-transit system. It serves an average 8.6 million riders per weekday on the New York City subways and buses as well as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.
–With assistance from Meenal Vamburkar and Kate Smith in New York and Toluse Olorunnipa in Tallahassee, Florida.
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