VALHALLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The National Transportation Safety Board has learned that signals and warning systems were working properly, and a Metro-North train was going below the speed limit, when it struck a sport-utility vehicle in an accident that left six people dead this week.
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported. Board member Robert Sumwalt also said Thursday that a witness account suggested the SUV driver seemed to have time to get off the tracks, but did not. Investigators were trying to obtain information from the driver’s cellphone records, and a computer module that was in her SUV.
The witness had decided to take Commerce Street near Lakeview Avenue in Valhalla due to traffic problems from an earlier accident on the Taconic State Parkway, Sumwalt said.
The witness said as he approached the Metro-North Line grade crossing where the accident later happened, traffic was “inching along.” He said he saw the SUV driver – identified as Ellen Brody, 49 — slowly move onto the crossing and stop, Sumwalt said.
As Brody stopped, the gate lowered and hit her Mercedes SUV, coming to rest against its back window, the witness said according to Sumwalt. The witness saw flashing lights at the crossing, but did not remember hearing bells or a train horn, Sumwalt said.
The witness said his own car windows were rolled up except for the driver’s side window, which was open about an inch. Upon seeing the crossing gate come down on Brody’s SUV, the witness reported that he backed up and assumed the SUV driver would do the same, Sumwalt said.
The witness said he motioned with his hand to try to communicate to Brody to back up, Sumwalt said. But the SUV driver got out of the car and walked up to the gate, touching it but not moving it, the witness said according to Sumwalt.
Brody then entered her vehicle and sat there for a moment, which the witness described as “enough time to put on her seat belt,” according to Sumwalt. The witness said Brody then suddenly pulled forward and the train struck her car, Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt did not name the witness, but a motorist named Rick Hope told the Journal News he backed up and motioned for Brody to do the same.
“She wasn’t in a hurry at all, but she had to have known that a train was coming,” Hope told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, a preliminary review of event recorder data indicated that the train sounded its proper horn cadence as it entered the grade crossing – two long blasts, a short blast, and a final long blast. The train was moving at 58 mph; the speed limit was 60 mph, Sumwalt said.
At 6:26 p.m. and 17 seconds, the engineer activated the emergency brake, Sumwalt said. Afterward, the train horn sounded for four seconds, and it took a little less than 30 seconds for the train to stop, he said.
Sumwalt said signage and markings were in place along Commerce Street toward the grade crossing, including pavement markings and a standing sign announcing a railroad crossing, and another standing sign 60 feet ahead of the crossing reading “do not stop on tracks.”
System recorders at the grade crossing indicated that the crossing arm and the highway traffic signal at the junction of Commerce Street and the Taconic State Parkway were all working properly, Sumwalt said.
A total of 39 seconds elapsed between when the crossing gates went down and the train entered the crossing, Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt said currently, the evidence discovered by investigators amounts to a “mosaic,” and pulling all the pieces together will take time.
One major question is why Brody wasted time getting out of her vehicle to look after the warning gate came down.
An investigator told CBS2 that Brody had just purchased the Mercedes, and perhaps she was overly sensitive to possible damage.
Another question for investigators is whether the design of the third rail on the Metro-North tracks played a role.
Investigators believe this is the first incident ever where the third rail was dislodged and ended up piercing the floor into a passenger car – feeding the fire that melted the interior of the front train car and killed five passengers.
PHOTOS: Deadly Metro-North Accident
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was also back at the crash site on Thursday.
“I think everything needs to be looked at,” he said. “The lighting, the sight distance, the crossing, the grade — everything needs to be looked at. It’s fair game when something like this happens. But ultimately, things happen, bad things happen and this might be a bad thing that happened where nobody is at fault.”
Brody was driving home from her jewelry-store job Tuesday night when the accident happened. She was killed along with five men on the train.
The crash Tuesday happened in the dark in an area where the tracks are straight but drivers exiting or entering the adjacent Taconic Parkway had to turn and cross them. Traffic also was backed up because of an accident on the parkway.
Astorino said he drives through the Commerce Street crossing to the Taconic Parkway every day.
“And that particular location where that traffic light is has always been confusing,” he told reporters, including WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.
Investigators had no evidence the crossing gates weren’t working properly, but their examination was just beginning, Sumwalt said.
“We intend to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened,” Sumwalt told reporters on Wednesday. “The big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?”
The crash was so powerful that the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train and the SUV.
“About 400 feet of the third rail was shoved into and breaking apart into mostly the first rail car,” Sumwalt said.
The SUV was pushed about 1,000 feet, Sumwalt said. The blaze consumed the SUV and the train’s first car.
“The initial indication is that the fire was fueled from gas from the SUV,” he said Wednesday.
Following the crash, the heat of the fire-melted metal essentially welded the stricken SUV to the underside of the commuter train.
NTSB officials say typically, when trains strike vehicles in accidents, train passengers survive. Experts said if not for the third rail punching up into the train car, Brody might have been the only one killed in the accident.
“Usually, it is not endangering the occupants of the train,” Sumwalt said. “What makes this accident different? What was it that made this different that caused this to be fatal to five people on this train?”
Sumwalt said the NTSB would also examine the adequacy of the train’s exits and the intensity of the fire and also hoped to verify the train’s speed as well as information on its horn and breaks.
In addition, the NTSB said it will get toxicology reports from the railroad on the crew members and hopefully from the medical examiner’s office on Brody.
Anyone who can help the NTSB with witness information should send an e-mail to email@example.com.
“We hope to begin interviewing people,” Sumwalt said. “We really hope to interview train crew today or tomorrow, but we’re hoping to interview witnesses and passengers who can help shed light on what was going on.”
Brody was a mother of three grown daughters and an active, outgoing member of her synagogue. She was “not risky when it came to her safety or others,” said family friend Paul Feiner, the town supervisor in Greenburgh.
The funeral for Brody was scheduled for Friday in Tarrytown.
The other victims have been identified as Walter Liedtke, a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Eric Vandercar, 53, a senior managing director at Mesirow Financial; Joseph Nadol, 42, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive; Aditya Tomar, 41, who worked in asset management at JPMorgan; and Robert Dirks, 36, a research scientist at D.E. Shaw Research in Manhattan.
Astorino said he spent most of the day Wednesday visiting with families of the victims.
“Most are just in total shock as you would expect,” he said. “As a father of three young kids, I’m just thinking about the mom and the dads who were lost and the children and the spouses that have to cope with this.”
Fifteen people were also hurt in the crash, seven of them seriously, officials said. The engineer and conductor survived and investigators will be able to gather information from them, officials said.
Service on the Harlem Line resumed Thursday with delays, as trains slowed down through the crash site area.
Metro-North has established a family assistance center at the Office of the Westchester County Medical Examiner at 10 Dana Road in Valhalla.
Information also is available at 800-METRO-INFO (800-638-7646).
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