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Investigation begins in NY commuter train crash that killed 6


VALHALLA, N.Y. — Federal investigators arrived at the site of a deadly commuter train crash Wednesday, looking for clues to how the train was functioning and why the SUV that triggered the fiery wreck was stopped on the tracks.

Six people were killed in the rush-hour collision Tuesday evening.

National Transportation Safety Board officials planned to examine the train’s black-box-style recorders, looking for answers to how fast the train was going, whether its brakes were applied and whether its horn was sounded as it approached the crossing where it slammed into the SUV, NTSB vice chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

Investigators also planned to look at the track signals’ recording devices, interview the Metro-North train’s operators, peer into the charred wreckage with laser-scanning devices and seek aerial footage, he said.

“We intend to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened,” he said at the crash site in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City.

Meanwhile, officials worked to identify those killed in the deadliest accident on one of the nation’s busiest commuter rail lines – one that has come under harsh scrutiny over a series of accidents in recent years.

Fifteen people remained hospitalized, seven with very serious injuries, as officials said they were, for now, mystified by the ghastly crash.

“It’s really inexplicable, based on the facts we have now,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on WCBS-AM radio. “Everybody wants to know exactly what happened, so that if something can be corrected, we correct it.”

Five train passengers – authorities initially said six – and the SUV’s driver were killed. The wreck happened in an area where the tracks are straight and car traffic can be tricky, as drivers exiting or entering a parkway turn and cross the tracks near a wooded area and a cemetery.

The driver had gotten out of her Mercedes SUV momentarily after the crossing’s safety gates came down around her and hit her car, according to the driver behind her, Rick Hope.

“I said to myself, ‘The clock is ticking here, the gate is down, the bells are ringing – what are you going to do here?’ ” he told WNYW-TV. “She looked a little confused, gets back in the car and pulls forward” on the tracks.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said it appeared that the woman got out to lift the crossing gate off her vehicle.

All railroad grade crossings have gate arms that are designed to lift automatically if they strike something like a car on the way down, railroad safety consultant Grady Cothen said. The arms are made of wood and are designed to be easily broken if a car trapped between them moves forward or backward, he said.

As of Wednesday morning, transit officials hadn’t found any problems with the tracks or signal, Astorino said.

Authorities said the impact was so powerful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train, and Cuomo said the SUV’s gas tank apparently exploded, starting a fire that consumed the SUV and the train’s first car, which was left blackened and mangled, its roof twisted sideways. The SUV, pushed about 400 feet, looked as though it was stuck on the front of the train.

Sitting in the train’s first car, Christopher Gross was watching a movie on his laptop “and all of a sudden, impact,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He was hurled onto the floor, hearing screams and seeing flames about a foot from his head and a fellow passenger whose leg had been amputated below the knee.

“It’s life or death at this point,” he recalled. And then, he said, a man whose hands were burned elbowed open the emergency exit latch, allowing some of the train’s roughly 700 passengers to escape.

Elsewhere, passengers found themselves trapped for a time in stifling cars as news of the fire spread, or climbed out via ladders. The train’s engineer tried to rescue people until the smoke and flames got so severe that he had to escape, Astorino said.

“I am amazed anyone got off that train alive,” said Astorino, who used to commute on the same line. “It must have been pure panic.”

Metro-North is the nation’s second-busiest commuter railroad, after the Long Island Rail Road. It was formed in 1983 and serves about 280,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut.

Metro-North has been criticized severely for accidents over the last couple of years. Late last year, the NTSB issued rulings on five accidents that occurred in New York and Connecticut in 2013 and 2014, repeatedly finding fault with the railroad while also noting that conditions have improved.

Among the accidents was a 2013 derailment that killed four people, the railroad’s first passenger fatalities, in the Bronx. The NTSB said the engineer had fallen asleep at the controls because he had a severe, undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.

Last March, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a stinging report on Metro-North, saying it let safety concerns slip while pushing to keep trains on time. Railroad executives pledged to make safety their top priority.

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