Six people are dead and a dozen are injured after a packed Metro-North train hit a car on the tracks in Westchester on Tuesday night. A 5:44 p.m. train from Grand Central was heading north on the Harlem line when it struck a Jeep Cherokee at a railroad crossing in Valhalla at about 6:30 p.m. The Jeep was pushed up the tracks about 400 feet, then the vehicle and the first train car burst into flames. The Jeep driver and five people — revised down from six — on the train were killed, making it the deadliest accident in Metro-North’s history. “This is a truly ugly and brutal sight,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said while touring the crash site.
Authorities say the Jeep stopped on the tracks, and the railroad crossing gates came down around it. The driver got out to look at the back of the car, then got back in and tried to drive forward. That’s when she was struck by the train. Ryan Cottrell, assistant director of the nearby rock-climbing gym the Cliffs, said he was looking out the window and saw the accident. “The flames erupted pretty quickly,” he said. According to Cuomo, the explosion made the electrified third rail lift up and pierce the first car, but it didn’t hit anyone on the train.
Justin Kaback, one of the roughly 650 passengers onboard, described the scene inside to ABC News. “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 hot,” he said. “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.’”
Stacey Eisner, who was in one of the train’s last two cars, told NBC New York that passengers felt a “jerk,” and it seemed that the train had turned off, though the power and heating were still on in her car. The conductor walked through the train and explained what had happened. About 10 to 15 minutes later, passengers were evacuated from the back of the train and taken to the Cliffs or the Hawthorne Funeral Home.
Ten people were sent to the hospital with serious injuries, and two others had non-life-threatening injuries. The rest of the passengers waited at the local businesses for buses that took them to the closest working station. Commuters shared these images on social media:
New York’s Public Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to the scene, and the National Transportation Safety Board said it’s sending a team as well. Metro-North has been plagued by multiple accidents in the past two years, including a derailment that killed four people when an engineer fell asleep on the job in December 2013. The ensuing federal investigation found a number of “safety-critical shortfalls.” While Metro-North’s president said in October that they had started implementing 85 percent of the safety recommendations issued since the derailment, some big upgrades have yet to be put in place.
Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, said Tuesday’s accident “appears to have been the driver’s fault,” but it’s still not clear why the accident unfolded as it did. It’s unusual for a train to go up in flames during a crash, and railroad gate crossings should lift automatically if they hit something while coming down. “At this early stage, it is premature to point any fingers of blame,” said New York senator Chuck Schumer. “But there are many important questions that must be answered in the coming days.”
This story has been updated throughout.