Federal investigators have concluded that a fiery crash between a commuter train and an SUV that killed six people in a New York City suburb in 2015 was extra deadly because of an unusual rail design, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Monday.
The Metro-North Railroad train crashed into an SUV on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City. The impact sparked an explosion and flames blasted into the passenger area, burning out the first car of the train. The driver of the SUV and five people aboard the train were killed. More than a dozen others were injured.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that about 340 feet of electrified rail was pulled up from the ground, penetrated the SUV’s fuel tank and then sliced into the train, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The rail was an “under-running” or “under-riding” design where a metal “shoe” slips underneath the electrified third rail, rather than skimming along the top. Questions were raised after the crash about whether the collision caused the shoe to pry up the third rail.
NTSB investigators are also recommending risk assessments be conducted for grade crossings, the official said.
The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Washington, when investigators are expected to present their final report on the crash.
Passengers were trapped in the fiery, mangled wreckage and tried to pry open the doors to escape. One passenger, whose hands, shirt and hair were on fire, managed to shatter an emergency box and then pry the doors open before leading a group of passengers out of the wreckage.
The SUV’s driver, Ellen Brody, had stopped in traffic on the tracks, between the lowered crossing gates. Witnesses said Brody got out of her Mercedes SUV to inspect the damage to her vehicle before driving forward and being struck by the oncoming train.
Her husband has filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against Metro-North, its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the train’s engineer. The lawsuit alleges that the crash was caused by a badly designed grade crossing and improper warning signs.
“She just didn’t know she was on a railroad track,” Brody’s husband, Alan Brody, said Monday. “The warning signals were invisible.”
A data recorder showed the train’s engineer hit the emergency brakes and sounded the horn as it bore down on the Valhalla crossing, traveling 58 mph in a 60 mph zone, the National Transportation Safety Board has said.