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The engineer of a Metro-North commuter train that crashed into a sport utility vehicle Tuesday was able to hit the emergency brake when he saw the Mercedes on the tracks before the fiery collision that left five people on board the train and the SUV’s driver dead, investigators said Thursday.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators still don’t know why the SUV’s driver, Ellen Brody, ended up on the tracks in Valhalla, a suburb north of New York City, or why she apparently drove forward and into the path of the crowded commuter train at around 6:30 p.m. ET.
Sumwalt said federal investigators are still trying to determine whether heavy traffic near the crossing, caused by an accident on the nearby Taconic State Parkway played a role in the SUV being on the tracks.
"At this point, we are still looking into that to find out what the circumstances were that would have caused or allowed a vehicle to end up on the tracks," Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday.
The train was traveling 58 mph as it approached the Commerce Street crossing, where the maximum allowable speed on that stretch of track is 60 mph, Sumwalt said. As the train approached it sounded the proper warning of a series of horn blasts, Sumwalt said, followed by an extra four-second blast right before the collision.
The emergency brake takes 30 seconds and about 950 feet to stop the train, he said.
A driver who was behind the SUV told investigators the crossing gate came down on the rear of the vehicle, the driver of the SUV got out and touched the gate, and then got back in her Mercedes, Sumwalt said. After a brief pause, she drove forward and was struck by the train.
Sumwalt said warnings were posted before the tracks, and that flashing warning lights, the crossing gate arm, and a traffic signal on the other side of the tracks — which is designed to coordinate with the warning system and make sure traffic doesn’t get backed up onto the tracks — all appear to have been working properly.
The flashing lights at the crossing activated 39 seconds before the train arrived, and the gates came down seconds later, Sumwalt said.