February 4, 2015 by Kiley Armstrong - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
VALHALLA, N.Y. — A crowded commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks at a suburban New York crossing and burst into flames, killing seven people, seriously injuring nearly a dozen others and sending hundreds of passengers scrambling for safety, authorities said.
The collision involved a Metro-North Railroad train and a Jeep Cherokee on Tuesday evening in Valhalla, about 32 kilometres north of New York City. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train.
Killed were the SUV’s driver and six people aboard the train, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, making this crash the railroad’s most deadly.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said the front part of the train was “completely charred and burned.”
“I am amazed anyone got off that train alive,” he said.
Astorino said 12 people were injured, 10 of them seriously.
Authorities said the SUV’s driver had gotten out of her vehicle momentarily after the crossing’s safety gates came down around her. She then got back in and was trying to drive forward when she was hit, they said.
“You have seven people who started out today to go about their business and aren’t going to be making it home tonight,” Cuomo said Tuesday at the crash site.
It was unclear how fast the train was going, but the maximum would be 60 mph (100 kph), a railroad official said.
The train shoved the SUV about 10 train car lengths. Smoke poured out of the scorched front rail car, its windows blackened.
Witnesses said they saw the flames shooting from where the crash occurred, in a wooded area near a cemetery.
Passengers described a bump and said they smelled gasoline from the vehicle.
Around 650 passengers likely were aboard the train.
The other rail passengers were moved to the rear of the train so they could get off. Buses picked them up and took them to other stations.
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.
Officials didn’t comment on whether the gates were working properly.
Rick Hope said he was stopped directly behind the SUV and said he started to back up to give her room, but instead she pulled forward.
Hope told WNYW-TV the crossing signals were working properly, and the gate was down and bells were ringing. He said the gate lowered and struck the SUV, and the woman got out looking a bit confused.
He said the woman “kind of” wiggled the gate. He said the SUV was at the track line when she pulled forward.
Metro-North is the second-busiest U.S. passenger railroad, after New York’s Long Island Rail Road. It was formed in 1983 and serves about 280,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut. Service on its Harlem Line was suspended between Pleasantville and North White Plains after the crash.
Metro-North has been criticized severely for accidents over the last couple of years. 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.
PHOTO courtesy of CP Images. First responders work at the scene of a collision between a commuter train and a vehicle about 30 kilometres north of New York City.