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NTSB Says It Could Take Full Year To Complete Valhalla Crash Investigation

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Kristin Poland sets up 3D Laser Scanner to create model of the damaged rail car.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Kristin Poland sets up 3D Laser Scanner to create model of the damaged rail car. Photo Credit: NTSB
The Commerce Street railroad crossing in Valhalla were six people were killed in a train-SUV collision earlier this month.
The Commerce Street railroad crossing in Valhalla were six people were killed in a train-SUV collision earlier this month. Photo Credit: File photo

MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y. -- The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Monday into the deadliest accident in Metro-North's history, in which six people were killed at a railroad crossing in Valhalla 20 days ago.

The NTSB has said it could take a year to complete its full investigation of a train fire and explosion that followed a collision with a Mercedes SUV at Commerce Street. The SUV was on the track when it was struck by the northbound commuter train about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 3.

The SUV's driver, Ellen Brody, 49, of Edgemont, and five male passengers in the lead car of the passenger train, were killed. The report said about 20 commuters were in the first car of the train, and about 650 were on the entire train.

Much of Monday's preliminary report documented findings discussed during NTSB news conferences in Tarrytown earlier this month.

Monday's report said that damage was estimated by Metro-North Railroad at $3.7 million. This figure is presumably the cost of replacing damaged trains and rail lines. Metro-North officials declined to elaborate.

Aaron Donovan, deputy director for external communications for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates Metro-North, said, "We don’t have anything to add at this point, but thanks for the opportunity."

The five passengers killed were: Bedford Hills residents: Eric Vandercar, 53, and Walter Liedtke, 69; New Castle residents Robert Dirks, 36, and Joseph Nadol, 42; and Aditya Tomar, 41, of Danbury, Conn.

Witnesses reported that Brody was stopped in the crossing prior to the gates lowering. When the gate lowered it struck the rear portion of the SUV after which the driver exited the SUV, looked at the back of the SUV, then got back in the SUV, drove forward (east), and was struck by the train, according to the NTSB report. Based on the preliminary review of the train’s event recorder data, the train was travelling at 58 mph prior to emergency braking and the horn was operated in accordance with operating rules on the approach to the crossing, the NTSB said.

The recorder indicated that the engineer activated the emergency brakes about 300 feet before the collision after observing what he characterized as, “a vehicle partially fouling the crossing."  The train and the SUV continued northbound resulting in the damage of the electrified third rail on the west side of the track. The third rail detached, pierced the SUV, and then entered the railcar in two locations from the underside, the NTSB said.

The train and SUV came to rest about 650 feet from the point of collision. The NTSB will conduct a metallurgical examination of some of the third rail. Samples from the interior of the lead train car also will be examined by NTSB investigators for compliance with fire protection standards.

"It's sad that it often takes tragedy to bring people together to focus on an issue, but NTSB’s preliminary report underscores the urgency for us to act on key safety measures," said U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D), who represents parts of Northern Westchester and Putnam.

Maloney said that 95 percent of deaths involving trains happen at highway-rail crossings, and with hundreds of deaths at grade crossings each year, "we must look at commonsense improvements at grade crossings — especially at high-hazard crossings we know are dangerous."

"The report underscores that (train engineer) Steven Smalls Jr. was a true hero in the face of a horrible situation; his quick reaction in slowing the train and subsequent rescue of injured passengers saved numerous lives," said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). "I look forward to a full determination of the accident’s cause and final recommendations that can guide our transit systems towards a safer path,'' Schumer said.

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