VALHALLA, N.Y. (AP) — Federal investigators looking into a fiery commuter train wreck that killed six people zeroed in Wednesday on what they called the big question on everyone's mind: Why was the driver of an SUV stopped on the tracks, between the lowered crossing gates?
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived to examine the blackened and mangled wreckage and the Metro-North train's data recorders the morning after the rush-hour collision with the sport utility vehicle about 20 miles north of New York City.
The Tuesday evening crash was the deadliest accident in the 32-year history of one of the nation's busiest commuter railroads — one that has come under a harsh spotlight over a series of accidents in recent years. The SUV driver and five men on the train were killed, burned so badly that authorities were using dental records to identify them.
"The big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?" said Robert Sumwalt, NTSB vice chairman.
Authorities wearing Federal Railroad Administration vests look over the wreckage of a Metro-North Railroad train and a SUV in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. Five train passengers and the SUV’s driver were killed in Tuesday evening’s crash in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The wreck happened after dark in backed-up traffic in an area where the tracks are straight but driving can be tricky. Motorists exiting or entering the adjacent Taconic Parkway have to turn and cross the tracks near a wooded area and a cemetery.
The driver — whom family friends identified as 49-year-old Ellen Brody, a jewelry store employee — had calmly gotten out of her Mercedes SUV momentarily after the crossing gates came down around her and hit her car, according to the motorist behind her, Rick Hope.
"She wasn't in a hurry at all, but she had to have known that a train was coming," Hope told the Journal News. He said he motioned to her to come back and gave her room to reverse. But instead, she got back in her car and went forward on the tracks, he said.
"It looks like she stopped where she stopped because she didn't want to go on the tracks," Hope he told WNYW-TV. "It was dark, so maybe she didn't know she was in front of the gate."
Traffic was moving slowly at the time, choked with drivers seeking to avoid the Taconic Parkway because of an accident, he noted.
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and vehicle accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Robert Mecea)
As of Wednesday evening, investigators had no evidence the crossing gates weren't working properly, but their examination was just beginning, Sumwalt said.
Among other things, investigators also planned to examine the tracks, interview the crew and find out whether the SUV had a data recorder of its own.
Brody was a mother of three grown daughters and an active, outgoing member of her synagogue. And she was "not risky when it came to her safety or others," said family friend Paul Feiner, the town supervisor in Greenburgh.
Railroad grade crossings typically have gate arms designed to lift automatically if they hit a car or other object on the way down, railroad safety consultant Grady Cothen said. The wooden arms are designed to be easily broken if a car trapped between them moves forward or backward, he said.
Acknowledging that collisions between trains and cars rarely cause rider deaths, Sumwalt said the NTSB would also examine the adequacy of the train's exits and the intensity of the fire, which investigators believe was sparked by the SUV's gas tank.
Sen. Charles Schumer said early indications are that the train was going 58 mph, or within the 60-to-70-mph speed limit in that area. The NTSB said it wanted to confirm speed and other data extracted from the recorder before releasing it.
It was not the first deadly crash at the site: A Metro-North train hit a truck, killing its driver, at the same Commerce Street crossing in 1984, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.
Rep. Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., said Tuesday's accident underscores the need for positive train control, a technology that uses WiFi and GPS to monitor trains' exact position and automatically applies the brakes to prevent collisions or lessen their severity. While not specifically designed to address grade-crossing accidents, the technology can be expanded for such purposes, he said.
Congress passed a 2008 law that requires all railroads to install positive train control by the end of 2015, but it's clear most of them will not meet the deadline.
Firefighters work at the scene of a train vs car accident at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla Feb. 3, 2015. (Frank Becerra Jr./The Journal News/lohud.com)
The crash was so powerful that the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train and the SUV, and the SUV was pushed about 1,000 feet, Sumwalt said. The blaze consumed the SUV and the train's first car.
Elizabeth Bordiga was commuting home from her New York City nursing job when she suddenly felt the train jerk a few times. She and other passengers in the middle part of the train started calmly walking to the back. But then they started smelling gasoline, and somebody said there was a fire.
But they couldn't open the emergency window or figure out how to escape until a firefighter got a door open, she said. Commuters lifted each other down from the train to the ground about 7 feet below, said Bordiga, who uses a cane.
"When I was on the ground, I looked to the right and saw flames. I couldn't believe it," she said.
In the first car, a man whose own hands were burned elbowed open the emergency exit latch, allowing some of the train's roughly 700 passengers to escape, passenger Christopher Gross said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The train's engineer tried to rescue people until the smoke and flames got so severe that he had to escape, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said.
While officials did not immediately release any victims' names, employers confirmed that the dead included Walter Liedtke, a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Eric Vandercar, 53, a senior managing director at Mesirow Financial.
Every day, trains travel across more than 212,000 highway-grade rail crossings in the U.S. There are an average of 230 to 250 deaths a year at such crossings, down over 50 percent from two decades ago, FRA figures show.
Risky driver behavior or poor judgment accounts for 94 percent of grade crossing accidents, according to a 2004 government report.
Metro-North is the nation's second-busiest commuter railroad, after the Long Island Rail Road, serving about 280,000 riders a day.
Late last year, the NTSB issued rulings on five Metro-North accidents in New York and Connecticut in 2013 and 2014, repeatedly finding fault with the railroad.
Among the accidents was a 2013 derailment in the Bronx that killed four people, the railroad's first passenger fatalities, The NTSB said the engineer had fallen asleep at the controls because of a severe, undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Ula Ilnytzky and Meghan Barr in New York; Joan Lowy in Washington; and Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.