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Commuter train slams into SUV on tracks, killing 6 people

Transit officials say a commuter train smashed into an SUV stopped on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, New York, killing five train riders and the car's driver.  Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino says a few injured people were treated and released from hospitals.

Hundreds of passengers scrambled to escape the smoky wreck.  The train was headed from Grand Central Terminal to the Brewster area.

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


Witness Devon Champagne of Brookfield describes the moments after the collision.  He says there was a passenger who ran past him with blood on his face.  Champagne saw people pulling the windows off the train cars, trying to get out through the emergency windows.


There were 12 patients brought to Westchester Medical Center from the accident.  Four have been discharged.  One remains critical, one is serious, four are fair and two are in good condition.  The injuries included fractures, lacerations, crush injuries and three burn patients.  There were also some people treated for smoke inhalation.


For people who had loved ones who may have been affected by the February 3, 2015,  grade crossing  accident in Valhalla, Metro-North has established a family assistance center at the Mount Pleasant Town Hall, 1 Town Hall Plaza, Valhalla.   Information also is available at 1-800-METRO-INFO. (800-638-7646).


Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton says his thoughts and prayers go out to families who lost loved ones in the accident, and he's monitoring similar crossings in the Greater Danbury area.  Boughton says he's concerned, though the crossing gates have been working well and functioning properly for the past seven or eight months.  The state Department of Transportation recently upgraded the Danbury Branch line, but there were signal issues with the crossings.


He doesn't know if the accident in Valhalla was caused by a faulty gate, but it could have been an issue of traffic that got stacked up at the crossing.  If there are recommendations made by the NTSB, he says they will be adopted.


Boughton says he did see an uptick in people who commute from Southeast taking the Danbury branch to Stamford and heading to New York from there.


National Transportation Safety Board officials were looking at the train's black-box-style recorders, seeking to learn 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 wreckage with laser-scanning devices and seek aerial footage, he said.


Authorities said the impact was so powerful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train, and New York Governor Andrew 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.


The five dead train passengers were all men, Astorino said. The SUV's female driver also was killed.  Meanwhile, officials were using dental records to identify the badly burned victims.


It was not the first deadly crash at the site: A truck driver died after a Metro-North train struck the vehicle at the same Commerce Street crossing in 1984, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. The driver didn't stop before the collision.


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 of a severe, undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.


Last March, the FRA 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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