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Six Die In Metro-North Train/SUV Roadway Accident

Commuter Train strikes SUV, six die. Wednesday February 4, 2015    9:50 AM

It is the deadliest accident in the history of the Metro-North Railroad. Officials said they still could not explain how or why a sport-utility vehicle became stranded on the train tracks.

A crowded commuter train traveling north through Westchester County slammed into the S.U.V. on Tuesday night, setting off a devastating explosion and fire that killed six people. Fifteen people were being treated at local hospitals, state officials said.

State officials, who had said on Tuesday that seven people were killed, revised the number downward on Wednesday morning, saying that six people had died — five train passengers and the driver of the car, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The five victims on the train were all men, according to a county official.

Mr. Cuomo, appearing on several morning television interviews, said that there was significant traffic near the railroad crossing where the accident happened and that it did not seem that the woman driving the vehicle, a black Jeep Cherokee, was trying to beat the train at the crossing at Lakeview Avenue in Valhalla, N.Y.

Instead, he said, it was more likely that she was somehow confused.

Earlier in the evening, there had been an accident on a nearby highway, the Taconic State Parkway, and as a result drivers seeking less congested routes had moved onto side streets in nearby towns.

The accident occurred about 6:45 p.m. and that the car burst into flames. ABC News also showed images of a car on fire and said there were multiple injuries at the scene and that passengers were evacuated from the train.

An NBC twitter feed showed a picture of smoke coming from some train cars.

The Mount Pleasant Police Department, which responded to the accident about 30 miles (48 km) northeast of New York City, declined to give any information on the incident when contacted by Reuters.

Metro-North Railroad said service on the Harlem Line was suspended between North White Plains and Pleasantville because of the collision. The line runs from Harlem, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, to Wassaic in southeast New York state.

"It looks like where she stopped she did not want to go on the tracks, but the proximity of the gate to her car, you know, it was dark — maybe she didn't know she was in front of the gate," Rick Hope, who said he was in a car directly behind the woman and backed up to give her room to do the same, told a local Fox affiliate WNYW.

He said that the woman instead drove forward, only to find herself stuck on the tracks.

Mr. Cuomo said it could not have been in a worse place. "That S.U.V. was right in the middle of the track and was hit directly in the middle of the car by the train," he said.

While the investigation was in its early stages, one person briefed on the matter said that it appeared that the woman was outside her car frantically waving at the train to stop at the time of the crash.

The train pushed the S.U.V. about 400 feet, the governor said.

"And 400 feet down, it was still on the middle of the track," Mr. Cuomo said. "It wrapped around the train and exploded."

It also caused the electrified third rail to tear from the tracks and rip through the first car in the train.

"This was as gruesome as I have seen," Mr. Cuomo said.

The Westchester County executive, Rob Astorino, arrived at the Westchester medical examiner's office, on the same campus in Valhalla as the medical center, late Wednesday morning and met with the wife of a man who was most likely killed in the accident.

"She's in total shock," he said. "She obviously saw what happened last night," referring to news reports. "Her husband didn't return home and she didn't get a call."

Officials still could not officially confirm the names of the victims.

While the medical examiner has an idea who all the victims are, Mr. Astorino said, "all but one of the bodies was charred beyond recognition."

"Once the dental records are provided, it will take hours and up to a day to possibly identify the bodies," he said.

In the moments after the crash, witnesses described a horrifying scene in the first car of the train, which quickly became filled with smoke and flames.

One witness, Chris Gross, appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," said that he had been watching a Mel Brooks movie in the front car when suddenly the train was jolted.

"People started falling over each other," he said. He was tossed into the aisle and saw flames, and he heard a man in front of him screaming.

"I turned over and looked," Mr. Gross said. The man in front of him "lost his leg below his knee."

In the chaos, he said, a man who had burns on his hands managed to pull the emergency latch so they could escape.

The man with the burns, Mr. Gross said, plunged his hands in the snow, hoping for some relief.

Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, said the train's operator applied emergency brakes as soon as he saw something on the tracks.

"He did everything he was supposed to do," Mr. Bottalico said.

The operator, Mr. Bottalico added, had evacuated several passengers before being overcome by smoke inhalation.

"He hung in there as long as he could," Mr. Bottalico said. The operator remains hospitalized, he said.

The operator had been on the job nine months as a locomotive engineer, he said, and has been with the railroad for three years.

On Wednesday morning, the smell of smoke still filled the air as investigators combed over the wreckage.

Metro-North has been under intense scrutiny after a series of crashes that killed six people in less than a year, including a derailment in 2013 on the Hudson line that left four commuters dead in the Bronx. A federal report released last year was highly critical of Metro-North.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site on Wednesday morning and took over the investigation.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday before leaving, Robert L. Sumwalt, a member of the board, said a full investigation would take about a year, though if the safety board's findings warrant "immediate attention," it can issue an urgent safety recommendation far more quickly.

"At this point, everything is on the table. Nothing is off the table," Mr. Sumwalt said.

In particular, investigators will focus on the crossing arms, rail traffic signals and highway signals; each device has "a recorder on it," Mr. Sumwalt said. The recorders have been secured and will be studied by experts, he added.

The board's on-scene investigation should take five to seven days, Mr. Sumwalt said.

But a Metro-North official said that some service on the Harlem line, which runs between Grand Central Terminal and Wassaic, N.Y., in Dutchess County, was expected to be restored sooner, possibly as early as Thursday.

In addition to questions about how the car became stranded on the tracks, investigators will also examine the evacuation procedures that went into effect after the accident.

While passengers on the train said they were told over the train's speakers that there had been an accident, they gave conflicting accounts of what they were told to do next.

Many passengers were evacuated through the back of the train.

About 400 of them were taken to a local rock-climbing gym for shelter, where buses were to take them to the next working station, said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the authority.

Those who were seriously wounded were taken to local hospitals. The locomotive engineer on the train, who would have been in the first car, was among the injured.

Photo: Commuter Train.
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