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Investigation Into Fatal Metro-North Collision In Westchester Begins

Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

What is being called the deadliest accident in Metro-North Railroad history has claimed six lives and injured some 15 others. The accident Tuesday evening in Westchester County involved a commuter train on the Harlem line and an SUV. A warning to our listeners: WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne’s report contains some disturbing descriptions.

Transit officials say 15 people remain hospitalized after a Metro-North commuter train smashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla, killing five people who were aboard the train and the car's driver. A tweet from Metro-North Railroad went out at 6:44 p.m. Tuesday, saying Harlem Line Service is temporarily suspended between North White Plains and Pleasantville due to a train striking a motor vehicle near Valhalla after having left Grand Central Terminal. Here’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on NY1 News Wednesday morning.

“The train drove the SUV about 400 feet. It appears that the SUV burst into flames. Those flames then engulfed the train,” says Cuomo. “The third rail actually came up through the first car of the train. So it was a really brutal, horrific accident and I’ve seen a lot of them, frankly, but this was as ugly as anything I’ve seen.”

A National Transportation Safety Board team has arrived in Westchester to investigate and ascertain information from the event recorder aboard the train. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was on the scene Tuesday night and offers this description.

“It was a chaotic scene. People were trying to jump off the train. The front car was where really all of the damage was and the fire, very heavy smoke. The third rail went up through the floorboard and straight through the train, so you had a very chaotic scene of people trying to escape. Obviously and unfortunately, five people did not,” says Astorino. “But it was basically contained to that front car. The other seven cars were basically undamaged with regard to any fire. There may have been some smoke. But people were jumping out and sort of wandering into the Gate of Heaven cemetery which is right there, wandering onto the Taconic [State Parkway], onto local roads, wherever they could get, so the police had to do a search all over to make sure there were no injured victims that needed attending or anyone that had died.”

Astorino was scheduled to meet with the victims’ families around 10 this morning, at which point none of the victims’ names had been released.

“The bodies, unfortunately, were burned beyond recognition and so the families have to come and bring dental records and other forms of identification, so it’s a tough day for everybody involved,” says Astorino.

Again, Governor Cuomo, in audio provided by his office.

“The eyewitnesses who were on the scene say that the SUV was in the middle of the track with the gates down.”

He adds:

“The question is going to be why was the car on the middle of the tracks, obviously. And was there something wrong with the gates, was there something wrong with the bells, was there something wrong with the sounding, none of which we can detect at this time,” Cuomo says. “And I’ve also learned sometimes just accidents just happen.”

Regardless, Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney says the accident is reminiscent of a too-recent fatal crash.

“I will bet you that just as in the Spuyten Duyvil crash, there are things we can be doing that we should have been doing. And it’s the responsibility of people like me to get those answers and to get the solutions going in time to do us some good,” Maloney says. “We have seen too many deadly accidents on Metro-North.”

He has the December 2013 Metro-North fatal derailment in the Bronx neighborhood of Spuyten Duyvil on his mind, as two victims were from his district. Maloney has since been working to ensure train travel is safer. A March report from the NTSB was critical of existing MTA safety measures. Valhalla, though, sits in Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s district. In a statement, Lowey thanked first responders and says she has been in contact with officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and the NTSB.

Astorino says the Harlem line should be back to usual service by Thursday.

“I’ve talked to the MTA chairman again this morning. It’s their hope that the NTSB can do a rather quick initial investigation so they can get the train off the tracks and then restore some sort of normalcy to the Harlem line,” says Astorino. “Whether that’s going to be today is probably not going to happen, but they’re hoping that they can get it up for tomorrow’s rush hour.”

The site of the crash is in the districts of State Senator Terrence Murphy and Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, both of whom were in Albany and headed to Valhalla Wednesday afternoon. Murphy says he’s been in contact with Astorino and other officials.

“I think this afternoon I’ll be in contact with the governor just to find out what his plans are and find out what I need from the MTA and then relay it back up to Albany,” says Murphy.

Officials initially said the SUV was a Jeep Cherokee, but MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said Wednesday authorities since have realized the vehicle was a Mercedes-Benz.

Copyright 2015 WAMC with contributions from The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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