Federal investigators headed to the New York suburbs on Wednesday to probe the fiery collision of a packed commuter train and an SUV. Authorities lowered the death toll to six.
The crash in the suburb of Valhalla, about 20 miles north of the city, was so powerful that the electrified third rail of the tracks pierced the first car of the train. The train pushed the SUV about 400 feet down the tracks.
The dead included five men in the front car of the train and the woman who was driving the SUV, said Rob Astorino, the top elected official in Westchester County. Authorities first said after the crash on Tuesday night that seven people were killed.
Medical examiners were trying to confirm the identities of the victims. Dental records were the only way because “all of the bodies are thoroughly burnt,” Astorino said.
At least 12 people were hospitalized, and one remained in critical condition on Wednesday. It was the deadliest accident in the 32-year history of the Metro-North system, which carries about 285,000 passengers a day.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that the SUV, a Jeep Cherokee, was stopped on the tracks when a railroad crossing gate came down on top of it.
The driver got out, checked the rear of the SUV, got back in and had started to drive forward when the train hurtled into it, the agency said. About 650 people are usually on the train when it leaves Manhattan for the northern suburbs.
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Robert Sumwalt, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that investigators would examine signals, recording devices on the train and fire patterns. He said there were no early details to report.
“At this point, everything is on the table,” he said.
He said the train would be moved to a storage facility to be examined.
Deborah Hersman, the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that trains such as the ones that crashed generally have devices that record speed, throttle position, braking patterns and bells and whistles. Astorino said that there was at least one eyewitness.
Passengers described a jolt, and then an announcement that the train had struck a vehicle. Some passengers had to break the glass on doors to get out; others used ladders to descend from the stopped train.
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“I hit the ground. People fell on top of me,” said Chris Gross, one of the passengers. “I turned around, saw utter chaos going through. The guy in front of me either lost or broke his leg. The guy across the way from him either lost of broke his leg.”
Jamie Wallace was sitting in the second car when the train slammed into the Jeep. There were panicked calls for a fire extinguisher farther up the train, he said, but the doors to the first car were jammed shut. They tried to break the glass to reach the first car.
“A number of us were smelling fumes from the car, fuel, and we said, ‘You know, we need to get out.’ The fire was starting to spread back toward the second car,” Wallace told NBC New York.
Metro-North has suffered a spate of recent accidents, including a derailment in December 2013 that killed four passengers and injured 61. Investigators found that the engineer fell asleep before the train took a 30 mph curve at 82 mph.
Four other accidents in New York and Connecticut in 2013 and 2014 were blamed by the NTSB on a lack of track maintenance and poor communication.
Becky Bratu, John Brecher, Tracy Jarrett, Phil Helsel, Niven McCall-Mazza and Erik Ortiz of NBC News contributed to this report.