SUV Was Inside Railroad Crossing Gates for 30 Seconds Before Metro-North Train Crash: NTSB

"The big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?" said NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Sumwalt

A Metro-North engineer hit the emergency brake as his train approached the Valhalla crossing where an SUV had moved onto the tracks, despite warning signals, before the deadly crash Tuesday, investigators said Thursday.

The SUV was in the danger zone inside railroad crossing gates for about 30 seconds before the train smashed into it, killing SUV driver Ellen Brody and five train passengers, National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. 

A preliminary review of the Metro-North Railroad train's data recorders also shows the train was traveling at 58 mph, just under the 60 mph speed limit, said Sumwalt. Flashing lights at the crossing illuminated 39 seconds before the wreck and the gates came down a few seconds later.

All traffic and crossing signals were working properly, Sumwalt said. The train's horn was sounded at a proper grade-crossing cadence: two long blasts, one short blast and another long blast. 

The agency hasn't mapped out how far before the Commerce Street crossing engineer Steven Smalls hit the emergency brake on the train, which takes about 950 feet and 30 seconds to stop, Sumwalt said in the second day of a probe into the crash.

The train had not been scheduled to stop at the Valhalla station and therefore would have had no reason to slow down in advance, officials have said. 

"What we have here is we have a mosaic," Sumwalt said. "We're going to take different pieces of information ... assemble it and see what that picture looks like" and build "a timeline so we know exactly what happened and when."

Sumwalt said that investigators Thursday interviewed Smalls, who said he saw the SUV as it moved onto the tracks. Sumwalt said more details from the engineer's interview would be released Friday. The agency also planned to interview the conductor Friday.

"The big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?" Sumwalt said.

Brody, a mother of three who is described by friends as safety-conscious, ended up stuck between two rail crossing gates as the crowded train barreled toward her SUV. She was among the six who died in the collision. 

Rick Hope, whose car was behind Brody's, told investigators traffic was "inching along" near the crossing before the accident. He said he saw her move onto the crossing and stop, and as she stopped driving, the crossing gates came down, trapping her vehicle, Sumwalt said. 

According to Sumwalt, Hope told investigators he backed up and thought Brody would do the same. When she didn't, Hope said he motioned with his hands and tried to communicate to her to back up but she got out of the car instead to check the back where the gates had come down.

"The accident driver then entered her vehicle and sat there for a moment, and he described it as if she had enough time to put on her seatbelt," Sumwalt said of Hope's account to investigators. "The accident driver suddenly pulled forward and as she did so, the train struck her car." 

Hope told investigators, according to Sumwalt, that he did not hear the horn of the approaching train but he did see flashing lights.

It's not clear if there was traffic on the other side of the crossing that may have prevented Brody from driving all the way forward off the tracks. 

"We're still looking into that to find out what the factors and circumstances were that allowed a vehicle to end up on the tracks," said Sumwalt. 

After the impact, flames enveloped the SUV and part of the train, and the electrified third rail came up and pierced part of the train: 400 feet of the rail was rammed like a spike into the first rail car, breaking apart in 80-foot sections, and at least one piece penetrated the second rail car, Sumwalt said. Gasoline from the SUV fueled the ensuing fire. 

Pieces of the charred third rail are still visible in the scorched wreckage of the car, according to new pictures released by federal investigators probing the crash.

Sumwalt told NBC 4 New York the car had been "totally destroyed."

"You can picture the shell of the car and inside is nothing but ashes and debris and then having six or seven sections of the third rail just stacked up inside of it -- just devastating," Sumwalt said.

Hundreds of passengers scrambled through spreading smoke and fear, some helping each other to escape despite their own injuries. The attorney for engineer Smalls told NBC 4 New York Thursday he went back into the burning car to rescue people until he was overcome by smoke. 

Trains hit cars on the tracks many times a year, but such crashes rarely kill train riders. Investigators have emphasized that they want to figure out why this one did, becoming the deadliest accident in the 32-year history of one of the nation's busiest commuter railroads.

Investigators are looking for any elements that may have intensified the fire, which they believe was ignited by the SUV's gas tank. The NTSB has been examining such factors as the adequacy of emergency exits, the crashworthiness of the train cars and the third rail's design.

The design was an unusual one, Sumwalt said, but investigators have yet to determine whether that played any role in allowing the rail to pierce the train cars.

The train was towed from the Valhalla crossing to a Metro-North yard in White Plains, where federal investigators will continue to comb through evidence over the coming days and weeks.

Five passengers on the train, Eric Vandercar, Joseph Nadol, Walter Liedtke, Robert Dirks and Aditya Tomar, and Brody were killed when the train slammed into Brody's SUV. After the collision, the train burst into flames and pushed the SUV nearly 1,000 feet down the tracks before coming to a halt.

The Harlem line resumed full service Thursday, restoring a sense of normalcy for many commuters, but those who were on the 5:44 p.m. train out of Grand Central to Chappaqua the day of the accident, like Elizabeth Bordiga, say their lives won't be the same.

"I'm never riding in the first car again," Bordiga said.

-Andrew Siff contributed to this report

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