Federal accident investigators arrived in New York Wednesday to begin piecing together Tuesday night’s fiery Metro-North Railroad crash that killed six people and injured more than a dozen in what officials say is the commuter rail's deadliest accident in history.
The NTSB says it's looking to answer two big questions in the crash, one with a highway component, and the other a rail component: why a car was on those Metro-North train tracks in Valhalla, and what caused the accident to be fatal for the train occupants.
Train-versus-car accidents are usually not fatal for train passengers, and that the third rail coming up in this case was highly unusual, officials said.
Five passengers on the train and the driver of a Mercedes Benz SUV were killed when the train slammed into the SUV, which was trapped between crossing gates in Valhalla, at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 45 minutes after it left Grand Central with hundreds of commuters aboard.
After the collision, the train burst into flames and pushed the SUV nearly 10 car lengths down the tracks before coming to a halt.
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The force of the impact caused the third rail to come up and pierce part of the train: 400 feet of the rail was shoved into the first rail car, breaking apart in 80-feet sections, and at least one piece penetrated the second rail car, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said in a news conference Wednesday. Gasoline from the SUV fueled the ensuing fire.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it "truly an ugly, brutal sight" shortly after visiting the accident scene Tuesday night.
Multiple sources have identified the train engineer as Steven Smalls, an Air Force veteran who entered the Metro-North engineers program in 2013, though it's unclear when he completed it. They tell NBC 4 New York he attempted to apply the emergency brakes when he spotted the SUV on the tracks, but it was too late.
The NTSB will look at all the rail signals, highway traffic signals and crossing gates at the scene, said Sumwalt. They'll also look at the alignment of the third rail to see if it complied with required specifications and if power to the rail was cut off when it encountered the car, as it should have been.
Sumwalt said a traffic detour from a nearby highway crash had vehicles streaming through the railroad crossing; investigators are looking into whether that detour may have played any role in setting up the accident sequence.
The SUV driver killed was identified Wednesday as Ellen Brody by the owner of the Chappaqua jewelry store where she worked, ICD Contemporary Jewelry. Among the five men killed aboard the train were financial executive Eric Vandercar of Bedford Hills, museum curator Walter Liedtke and Danbury, Connecticut resident Tomar Aditya.
Officials initially said six passengers aboard the train and the driver were killed, but the death toll was lowered Wednesday morning to include five male passengers and the SUV driver, believed to be a married mother, a law enforcement source told NBC 4 New York.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino called the death toll reduction a “minor miracle."
Fifteen train riders were hurt in the crash, some of them seriously. Twelve of those passengers were treated at Westchester Medical Center for injuries including, cuts, bruises, dislocations, open fractures, smoke inhalations and burns. One patient remains in critical condition.
The train engineer was also treated for his injuries at a hospital, but was not believed to be one of the casualties, MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast said.
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Astorino said that all but one of the victims who were killed were burned beyond recognition and will have to be identified by dental records, a process that could take up to a day.
“To think about what some of these commuters went through, they got on the 5:45 p.m. train, probably talked to somebody at home to say, ‘I’m on the way,’ and the world became upside down,” Astorino said. “That train had so many flames in it, so engulfed, the inside of that first car is just melted and charred with the third rail going right through it.”
Sumwalt said NTSB teams would likely be at the scene for about a week gathering facts and insight. They'll also investigate medical records, highway conditions, the strength of the rail cars, the emergency response and the adequacy of the emergency exits on the train, among other things.
"We've officially taken command of the accident scene," Sumwalt said.
Investigators Wednesday began downloading data from event recorders and highway and rail signals and documenting what they called "perishable" evidence from the scene. They've requested aerial photos of the crash site and are asking witnesses to contact the agency at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may be a year before the NTSB issues its final report on the crash, Sumwalt said, but he added the agency may recommend some essential safety measures sooner based on preliminary findings.
The MTA and the Federal Railroad Administration are also conducting their own investigations.
Crews were on the scene Wednesday to remove the train from the tracks so work can begin to repair the section of electrified rail that was damaged, Astorino said. The wreckage will be moved to an indoor hangar while NTSB teams investigate.
Six hundred and fifty people were on board train No. 659, which departed Grand Central at 5:45 p.m. The train made one stop at 125th Street in Harlem before it proceeded express toward Chappaqua, the MTA said. Since the train wasn't stopping in Valhalla, the engineer had no reason to slow down or stop before seeing the SUV on the tracks, a law enforcement source told NBC 4 New York.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said preliminary information showed the train appeared to be going about 58 mph in the area at the time, well within limits.
There was only one other recorded accident at the railroad crossing, back in 1984, but data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows the crossing was flagged as an intersection with a high probability of accidents, a figure determined by the number of trains and cars that cross daily.
Passengers' accounts of the crash varied according to where they were sitting. Those in back reported feeling only small "jolts" or "jerks" upon impact, while those sitting toward the front heard a loud explosion and saw smoke quickly filling their cars.
The collision comes a little more than a year after new Metro-North President Joseph Giuletti took over, with a vow to make safety the top priority.
Multiple derailments in 2013 and 2014 -- including one in December 2013 that killed four people when a fatigued engineer fell asleep at the controls -- had prompted a federal review in which investigators concluded that Metro-North sacrificed safety in 2013 to accommodate an obsession with on-time performance.
The MTA says it has made dozens of recommended changes, but big-ticket items like automated train control could still be months or even years away. It appears too early to tell whether safety controls could have prevented Tuesday's collision.
Metro-North has established a family assistance center at the Mount Pleasant Town Hall at 1 Town Hall Plaza in Valhalla and a phone hotline at 1-800-METRO-INFO (800-638-7646).