Governor Andrew Cuomo surveyed the site of the Metro-North commuter train that crashed into an SUV on the tracks in Valhalla, NY last night, killing six people and injuring at least 12 others. He called it a "truly ugly and brutal sight," and later said, "The tragic crash of the MetroNorth train is a painful reminder how precious life is, and my prayers are with those who lost loved ones."
It's believed the Jeep SUV was stopped at a crossing at Commerce Street because the crossing-barricade landed on the back of the vehicle. The Post reports that the driver had been in an earlier accident, and instead of backing up, she got out to check the damage to her SUV. She then continued to try and cross the tracks.
"I’m signaling and yelling for her to back up and reverse, and I’m thinking the clock is ticking here," Richard Hope, who was driving behind her, tells the Post. "But she gets back in her car and starts driving forward over the tracks."
The 5:44 p.m. Harlem line train from Grand Central, due in the Southeast station at 7:08 p.m., then barreled into the car. This morning, in an interview on CBS, Cuomo said that five people aboard the train were killed, as well as the SUV driver. He described the collision:
It appears that the gasoline tank on the car burst and that started the fire - consumed the car and consuming the first train - the first car of the first train. So people had to deal with both the collision and the fire. And you and I have both been to a lot of gruesome scenes. This was as gruesome as I have seen. The third rail came right through the car. So that it wasn’t worse.. is actually amazing to me. You had about 700 people on that train. But it shows you two things. I mean, life is so random nowadays, and it’s so dangerous out there, and life is so precious. These are 7 people who left in the morning and said “I’ll see you tonight honey,” and don’t come home. So it’s a chilling reminder for all of us.
A passenger in the second train car told the NY Times, "The train screeched to a halt, and you immediately started smelling smoke. People started screaming, ‘Run to the back of the train.'... It was kind of crazy. You had firemen trying to bang open the doors. People were jumping out of the windows."
One commuter said the Post, “I felt a big bump and I just kind of shot forward a little bit. “Then everything went silent... We heard a huge explosion at the front of the train. It was just like, ‘Kapow!’" Another said of the first car passengers, "They were basically trapped in there with the fire. A few of us in my car tried to break the glass so we could get through, but to no avail."
Justin Kaback, heading back to Danbury, Connecticut, told ABC 7, "I was trapped. You know there was people in front of me and behind me, and I was trapped in the middle of a car and it was getting very ho. All the air was turned off so there was no circulation so it was definitely scary especially when people are walking by on the outside and they said, 'The train's on fire. There's a fire.'"
Four hundred passengers were evacuated from the train and took refuge in a local rock climbing gym, The Cliffs. The train's operator was among the injured, suffering burns and smoke inhalation.
The National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the latest in a series of Metro-North safety issues, some deadly. The Times added, "James E. Hall, a former chairman of the safety board, said he expected investigators to consider whether gasoline escaping from the Jeep had set the train car on fire. He said it was unusual for a passenger train to burst into flames in a crash, but he added that 'anytime you have friction in an accident there’s a possibility of flammability.'"
Cuomo addressed Metro-North's past incidents on CBS This Morning, saying, "We’ve had all sorts of studies done, and the basic consensus is that over time the orientation of the railroad was to make sure they were meeting their time schedule, and that was the number one priority—to have on time service. Which is obviously important, but it’s not the number one priority—the number one priority is safety.
"We have a new person who has been running the MTA, and running Metro North, and they are changing the priorities and they are changing the paradigm of operating Metro North. It’s also too early to say if there’s anything to learn here. If there was an engineer problem or a train problem or an equipment problem, we’ll learn from it.
"But sometimes there are just accidents. Sometimes people get themselves in bad situations. So I think it’s too soon to say what’s to blame or who’s to blame, but if there’s anything to learn, we will learn it. Because safety is number one, and we want to make sure that everyone feels safe when they’re getting on that commuter train."
Regarding service this morning, the MTA issued this announcement: "Metro-North Harlem Line train service is suspended between Pleasantville and North White Plains until further notice due to the train/car collision near Valhalla. There will be limited bus/train service for Upper Harlem Line customers beginning with morning rush hour service on Wednesday and until further notice."
Details for service changes are here. Metro-North has also established a family assistance center at the Mount Pleasant Town Hall (1 Town Hall Plaza, Valhalla) for people whose loved ones who may have been affected by crash.