NEW YORK (CNN) — The actions of an SUV driver who inexplicably stopped at a railroad crossing north of New York City, triggering a fiery commuter railroad collision that left her and five train passengers dead, will be a focus of the investigation into the deadliest crash in Metro-North Railroad history, officials said.
Investigators are not entirely sure why the woman’s Mercedes SUV stopped on the tracks Tuesday night in Valhalla, about 30 miles north of New York City, National Transportation Safety Board Member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday.
“For reasons not precisely known at this time, but for reasons that we intend to find out, the SUV was stopped on the tracks,” he told reporters.
Mushkee Raskin, the program director at Chabad of the Rivertowns, a synagogue in nearby Dobbs Ferry, said Wednesday that the SUV’s driver was Ellen Brody, a congregant. Brody was a mother of three girls, according to a friend of her family.
The gates at the crossing came down on top of her vehicle, said an MTA official with knowledge of the incident. She got out to examine the rear of her vehicle — then got back in, drove forward and was struck shortly before 7 p.m.
The vehicle was dragged 1,000 feet.
Some 400 feet of the electrified third rail perforated the first rail car and part of the second in “80-foot sections … breaking apart section by section, just basically piling up” in the rail cars, Sumwalt said.
Initial indications are the raging fire that consumed both the SUV and first rail car was fueled by gasoline from the vehicle, Sumwalt said.
NTSB investigators have collected recording devices from the scene. Sumwalt said rail signals and the crossing arms at the intersection have recording devices.
All but one of the six dead were burned beyond recognition, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said. Dental records were being used to identify the victims.
One of the victims from inside the train was identified Wednesday as Walter Liedtke, European paintings curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We do not have official confirmation yet, but it appears as though he was among the victims in the first car,” museum director Thomas Campbell wrote in an email to staff. “We are all shocked by this news and have his entire family, particularly his wife, Nancy, in our thoughts.”
Eric Vandercar, 52, a senior managing director in institutional sales and trading for Mesirow Financial, also died in the crash.
“Eric was not only a pillar in our industry, he was a great partner and friend to many,” Mesirow Financial said. “Losing him is a huge loss, personally and professionally. Our entire Mesirow family is hurting and our deepest sympathies are extended to his wife, Jill, and their family.”
In addition, 15 people were injured, “about nine” seriously, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. It was the deadliest crash in Metro-North Railroad’s 32-year history.
Passenger Justin Kaback said he hardly felt a thing when the commuter train smashed into the vehicle.
He didn’t even know there had been an accident, or that the crash had killed six people.
The governor’s office and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday morning revised the total number of fatalities, initially reported as seven.
Kaback said he received no warning of the fire about to ignite in the first car of the train.
The northbound train left New York’s Grand Central Terminal more than an hour earlier, Astorino said.
The scene was “horrific and unimaginable,” Astorino said. Engulfed by flames, the first rail car was a melted and charred hulk.
“To think about what these commuters went through when last night they got on the 5:45 train, probably talked to somebody at home, saying they’re on their way and the world became upside down,” Astorino told reporters.
The crossing where the wreck occurred is “a little dangerous,” Astorino said. Traffic had been diverted to the area after an unrelated accident on a nearby highway.
“That’s an area I think the state (Department of Transportation) needs to look at to see if we can improve,” he said.
On Wednesday, eight people were still being treated at Westchester County Medical Center, including one in critical and another in serious condition, hospital officials said. Three suffered burns. Four were discharged overnight.
“The silver lining here is that the injuries and the extent of the injuries weren’t as serious as they could be, comparatively, to some other major trauma activations,” Dr. Joseph Turkowski, burn unit director, told reporters. “We could have received a lot more patients, a lot more serious injuries, and it could have resulted in a lot more deaths. We are thankful for that.”
Emergency department director Dr. Ivan Miller said: “Many of us take Metro-North and we have families that take Metro North. So it does strike close to home.”
Inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
“We will work closely with the NTSB and local officials to determine the exact cause of this tragedy, and work to ensure such incidents are not repeated,” Metro-North Railroad President Joseph Giulietti said in a statement.
The cause of the crash has yet to be determined, but Astorino said: “At this point, all indications from the MTA at least is that it was not a problem with the tracks or anything. It was unfortunately human error, but that’s part of the investigation.”
Kaback, the passenger who spoke to CNN’s Don Lemon, said he only felt the train braking, coming to a complete stop, not the impact of hitting a vehicle.
“They shut down the engine. They cut power. They cut the air,” he said. Then there was silence.
The first word of anything gone wrong came from other passengers. They came back from the front of the train, saying they smelled gasoline.
“We’ve got to move to the back of the train,” Kaback said they told him.
While the passengers fled from the gas fumes, a short announcement over the train’s loudspeakers informed passengers that the train had struck a car, he said.
He heard no further details or instructions.
‘The train is on fire’
Outside the train, somebody yelled, “The train is on fire,” and the car he was in was growing hotter, Kaback said.
Kaback felt claustrophobic.
“That’s when I knew it was time to get off,” he said. The other passengers did, too. They threw open emergency doors and broke windows, he said. Everyone exited in an orderly manner without panic.
The snow on the ground, which sloped sharply down from the track, made climbing off the train difficult.
Once outside, Kaback took pictures of the first car of the train, as flames climbed out its windows.
Photos of the scene and aerial video from CNN affiliate WCBS showed flames and smoke pouring out windows of the commuter train.
The first car was the only one that caught fire, Astorino said. “Everything is melted inside.” There was not much damage from the second car back.
The train was full when the accident happened, Astorino said. “There were about 650 (people) total on the ride home.”
The crash was the deadliest in Metro-North Railroad’s history, said Marjorie Anders, spokeswoman for the MTA. The previous deadliest crash happened in December 2013, when four passengers were killed and more than 70 were injured in a derailment on the Hudson Line in the Bronx.
In October, NTSB said an investigation of five Metro-North accidents revealed “recurring safety issues, including inadequate and ineffective track inspection and maintenance, extensive deferred maintenance issues, inadequate safety oversight, and deficiencies in passenger car crashworthiness, roadway worker protection procedures and organizational safety culture.”
Those accidents resulted in six fatalities and 126 injuries, according to the NTSB, which found “several safety management problems that were common to all of the accidents.”
The day before the NTSB announced its findings, the MTA named David Mayer — a former NTSB managing director — as chief safety officer.
NTSB teams with expertise in several areas, including highway and rail traffic signals, crossing gates, fire propagation and recorders, will be at the scene for five to seven days, Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday morning in Washington as investigators prepared to travel to the site.
The total investigation might take about 12 months, he said.