Federal investigators have successfully downloaded data from one of the event recorders on a Metro-North train that struck a sport utility vehicle on the tracks north of New York City on Tuesday and have sent another recorder off for analysis as they probe the accident, which killed six people.
Robert Sumwalt, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the data should determine how fast the train was moving when it slammed into the Mercedes at 6:30 p.m. in Valhalla, causing the vehicle to explode and setting the front part of the commuter train on fire. Five people on board the train and the driver of the SUV were killed. Officials initially said seven people were killed.
"The big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?" Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday.
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Sumwalt said there is no initial indication that the crossing gate wasn't working properly at the time of the crash, but he cautioned that the investigation was just beginning. The NTSB will also look at the crossing itself, sight lines, whether power was interrupted to the electrified "third rail" after the accident as designed, and whether the interior of the train car contributed to its catching fire. Investigators will interview the train's conductor in the coming days.
What is unusual about this crash is that it killed those on board the train — typically when a car on the tracks is struck by a train, the driver and passengers in the car are the only casualties, Sumwalt said. "We intend to find out what makes this accident different," he said.
The accident is the deadliest in Metro-North's 32-year history. The driver of the SUV was identified by her employer as 49-year-old Ellen Brody, NBC New York reported. ICD Contemporary Jewelry in Chappaqua told the station that "she was our beloved colleague and we pray for her and other families whose loved ones were lost and injured in yesterday's tragedy."
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The victims on the train included Walter Liedtke, a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Eric Vandercar, 53, a senior managing director at Mesirow Financial, the museum and the company said. Robert Dirks, 36, a father of two who lived in Chappaqua, was also killed in the crash, his family said.
The vehicle was pushed 1,000 feet down the track, and investigators believe the gasoline in the Mercedes ignited, causing the fire. More than 400 feet of the third rail was sent piercing through the chassis of the vehicle, out its right rear side and into the first car of the train at an upward angle, where it broke into 80-foot sections, Sumwalt said.
"Section by section, it's basically piling up in that first train car," Sumwalt said. An NTSB report released in October found problems at Metro-North that included a lack of track maintenance and poor communication that it said contributed to other accidents, but Sumwalt said it isn't clear that those issues played any role in Tuesday's crash.
It is still unknown why the SUV was on the tracks. "I'm confident we will be able to put together a good timeline of this event," Sumwalt said. A witness behind the SUV told LoHud.com that the a crossing gate closed on the vehicle's roof, that he gave the driver room to back up and out of danger, but instead she drove forward and was hit by the train.