SUV driver's behavior under scrutiny in deadly train crash

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SUV driver's behavior under scrutiny in deadly train crash
For story suggestions please contact tips@nma.com.tw Investigators looking into a train collision in New York are focusing on why a car was stopped at a railroad crossing near White Plains north of New York City.
This photo provided by the Brody family shows an undated photo of Ellen Brody who was killed in the SUV that was hit by the train in New York Tuesday Feb. 3, 2015. The National Transportation Safety Board is looking into how familiar the SUV driver was with her car and her route, whether she was using a cellphone and whether the backed-up traffic played a role. (AP Photo/Family photo via Jeff Schaeffer)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: The sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North train is removed from the site of the accident on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train car that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, speaks at a press conference regarding a Metro-North train crash with a sport utility vehicle that occured last night on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed six people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: An official is carried on a stretcher after being injured at the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Wreckage of a sport utility vehicle is removed from the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and vehicle accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Wreckage of a sport utility vehicle is removed from the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Journalists work near the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: An official is carried on a stretcher after being injured at the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: An official is carried on a stretcher after being injured at the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Officials inspect the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Officials inspect the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle in Valhalla, New York on February 4, 2015. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people and a dozen injured. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: The sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North train is removed from the site of the accident on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train car that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: The sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North train is removed from the site of the accident on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train car that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: The sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North train is removed from the site of the accident on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train car that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: The sport utility vehicle that was hit by a Metro-North train is removed from the site of the accident on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train car that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04: Officials inspect a Metro-North train crash with a sport utility vehicle that occured last night on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed seven people, including the driver of the vehicle. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
An investigator points to an SUV that was crushed and burned at the front of a Metro-North Railroad train, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into the SUV stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and at least five train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A paramedic in New York State says he's still in disbelief. Paramedic Angelo Ortiz was one of the first responders who treated people at the fatal train crash in Valhalla, New York.
Emergency personnel look at a rail of steel that punctured two cars of a Metro-North Railroad train at the site of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks and erupted into flames Tuesday night, killing several people and sending hundreds of passengers scrambling for safety, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Emergency personnel look over the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and an SUV in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 .A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks and erupted into flames Tuesday night, killing at least five and sending hundreds of passengers scrambling for safety, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A sports utility vehicle remains crushed and burned at the front of a Metro North train Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into the SUV stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and several train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Emergency personnel look at a rail of steel that punctured two cars of a Metro-North Railroad train at the site of an accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks and erupted into flames Tuesday night, killing several people and sending hundreds of passengers scrambling for safety, authorities said.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A police officer walks by burned and blackened windows of a Metro-North train stopped on the tracks, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and six train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Officials examine the railroad crossing and the back of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 in Valhalla, N.Y. Five train passengers and the SUV’s driver were killed in Tuesday evening’s crash in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Investigators look at a Metro-North Railroad train, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into an SUV stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and at least five train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Emergency personnel dressed in protective suits look over the site of a collision between a Metro-North Railroad train and an SUV in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks and erupted into flames Tuesday night, killing several people and sending hundreds of passengers scrambling for safety, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A sports utility vehicle remains crushed and burned at the front of a Metro North train Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into the SUV stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and several train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A police officer walks in front of a Metro-North train stopped on the tracks, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Valhalla, N.Y. The commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks Tuesday evening, killing the driver and six train passengers, authorities said. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers and other responders work at the scene of a train crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers and police investigate a Metro-North train crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers stand beside a burned out train car following a crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers and police investigate a Metro-North train crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: First responders work at the scene of a train accident on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least six people and injuring many more. (Photo by Andrew Delaney/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers and police investigate a Metro-North train crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and vehicle accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks and the front of the train and the vehicle burst into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and vehicle accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A packed commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle stuck on the tracks and erupted into flames, authorities said. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: First responders work at the scene of a train accident on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least six people and injuring many more. (Photo by Andrew Delaney/Getty Images)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and vehicle accident in Valhalla, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Metro-North Railroad spokesman Aaron Donovan says the train struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing about 20 miles north of New York City. (AP Photo/Robert Mecea)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: First responders work at the scene of a train accident on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least six people and injuring many more. (Photo by Andrew Delaney/Getty Images)
VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: Police investigate a Metro-North train crash on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. A Metro-North commutor train carrying hundreds of passengers struck a vehicle at a railroad crossing killing at least seven people and injuring many more. (Photo by Michael Graae/Getty Images)
#BREAKING: Metro-North train hits car on tracks in Valhalla, officials say http://t.co/RAlEeUtWWc http://t.co/FxBOOupwmw
PHOTO: Firefighters spray water at scene of crash between car and New York commuter train: http://t.co/z2Oug24K23
JUST IN: MTA reports there are six dead in a Metro-North train collision in Valhalla, New York http://t.co/0WrjDY8CDg http://t.co/mjIjapXY9q
At least six dead after Metro-North train collides with car near White Plains: http://t.co/SjP4gOycWE http://t.co/4SZgEygd9Z
Crazy photo from the scene of the #metronorth train crash. It's the point of impact and looks devastating. http://t.co/PUaxKQSBuW
Several people feared dead after Metro-North train crashes into a car outside NYC http://t.co/Qo4Bxy2XaV http://t.co/BKCOXr3Cox
MTA confirms six dead in #MetroNorth crash in Valhalla. http://t.co/SUV9fpqttv
#BREAKING: Officials confirm 6 dead and 12 injured in commuter train crash in #Valhalla, New York. http://t.co/A7oAlTUDpx
#BREAKING update 6 dead. 5 on train, 1 driver. #MetroNorth #crash #Valhalla #NY Train vs 2 cars. @ least 12 hurt. http://t.co/WJMEXLIQSS
Multiple injuries reported after crash involving Metro-North train near White Plains, NY: http://t.co/ffUkTG0vfx http://t.co/b4Ehih4TfV
Terrible news out of Valhalla. Six killed in a train crash. Our story by @MattSpillane: http://t.co/K6kxlW7J1r http://t.co/onvi8MuLZz
WATCH LIVE: Chopper 4 @ Metro-North vs. car: massive emergency response, smoldering train cars http://t.co/EDDsjlrb6Q http://t.co/dZ3fCw7mox
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VALHALLA, N.Y. (AP) -- The baffling behavior of a woman whose SUV stopped between the crossing gates on a railroad track came under scrutiny Wednesday as investigators sought clues to a fiery commuter train crash that killed six people.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were looking at the Metro-North train's black-box-style recorders, seeking to learn its speed, whether brakes were applied and whether it sounded its horn as it approached the suburban New York crossing where it slammed into the SUV, NTSB vice chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

"We intend to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened," he said at the site of Tuesday evening's rush-hour collision in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City.

Later Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer said early indications are that the train was going 58 mph, or within the 60-to-70-mph speed limit that area.

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

Meanwhile, officials were using dental records to identify the badly burned victims - five men on the train and the SUV driver, officials said. Several others remained hospitalized, at least two with critical or serious injuries.

It was the deadliest accident in the 22-year history of one of the nation's busiest commuter railroads - one that has come under a harsh spotlight over a series of accidents in recent years.

"It's really inexplicable, based on the facts we have now," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on WCBS-AM radio.

The wreck happened after dark in heavy traffic in an area where the tracks are straight but driving can be tricky. Motorists exiting or entering the adjacent Taconic Parkway have to 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.

Traffic was moving slowly at the time, choked with drivers seeking to avoid the Taconic Parkway because of an accident, he noted.

"It looks like she stopped where she stopped because she didn't want to go on the tracks," Hope added. "It was dark, so maybe she didn't know she was in front of the gate."

Railroad grade crossings typically have gate arms designed to lift automatically if they hit a car or other object on the way down, railroad safety consultant Grady Cothen said. The wooden arms 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, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said.

It was not the first deadly crash at the site: A Metro-North train hit a truck, killing its driver, at the same Commerce Street crossing in 1984, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.

Rep. Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y, said Tuesday's accident underscores the need for positive train control, a technology that uses WiFi and GPS to monitor trains' exact position and automatically applies the brakes to prevent collisions or lessen their severity. While not specifically designed to address grade-crossing accidents, the technology can be expanded for such purposes, he said.

Congress passed a 2008 law that requires all railroads to install positive train control by the end of 2015, but it's clear most of them will not meet the deadline.

The crash was so powerful that the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train, and the SUV was pushed about 400 feet. 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.

Elizabeth Bordiga was commuting home from her New York City nursing job when she suddenly felt the train jerk a few times. She and other passengers in the middle part of the train started calmly walking to the back. But then they started smelling gasoline, "and somebody said, "There's a fire," she recalled.

But they couldn't open the emergency window or figure out how to escape until a firefighter in the train got a door open, she said. Commuters lifted each other down from the train to the ground about 7 feet below, said Bordiga, who uses a cane.

"When I was on the ground, I looked to the right and saw flames. I couldn't believe it," she said.

In the first car, a man whose own hands were burned elbowed open the emergency exit latch, allowing some of the train's roughly 700 passengers to escape, passenger Christopher Gross recalled on ABC's "Good Morning America."

The train's engineer tried to rescue people until the smoke and flames got so severe that he had to escape, Astorino said.

Every day, trains travel across more than 212,000 highway-grade rail crossings in the U.S. There are an average of 230 to 250 deaths a year at such crossings, down over 50 percent from two decades ago, FRA figures show.

Risky driver behavior or poor judgment accounts for 94 percent of grade crossing accidents, according to a 2004 government report.

Metro-North is the nation's second-busiest commuter railroad, after the Long Island Rail Road, serving about 280,000 riders a day.

Late last year, the NTSB issued rulings on five Metro-North accidents in New York and Connecticut in 2013 and 2014, repeatedly finding fault with the railroad.

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



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