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6 Dead After Metro-North Train Hits Jeep in Westchester

By  Ben Fractenberg and Mathew Katz | February 3, 2015 8:10pm | Updated on February 3, 2015 10:49pm

 A Metro-North train collided with a jeep in Westchester, N.Y. Feb. 3, 2015.
Fatal Metro-North Crash
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WESTCHESTER — Six people were killed and 15 others were injured after a Metro-North train hit a Jeep in Westchester Tuesday evening, setting the train's front car on fire, officials said.

The female driver of the black Jeep Cherokee and several passengers on board the train were killed after the northbound train struck the vehicle at about 6:30 p.m. at the Commerce Street railroad crossing in Valhalla, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

All of the train fatalities were passengers, sources said. Fifteen other people were treated at area hospitals, but their condition was not immediately clear, according to the MTA.

"Horrific scene," Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino tweeted. "3rd rail totally through front train. Heavy fire and smoke damage."

"Pray for the deceased," he added.

A preliminary investigation found that the woman's car stalled on the tracks as the crossing gates came down and hit the vehicle, sources said.

The woman got out of her car to survey the damage, but saw the train approaching and rushed to get back inside to drive away, sources said, but could not escape in time. The train struck the Jeep with the woman inside, causing it to explode, sources said.

About 400 riders escaped the train via the rear of the car, and were taken to The Cliffs rock climbing gym for shelter, about 500 feet away.

The crash site was full of "fire, smoke, people piling outside the train," said Kary Williams, the gym's general manager. "It was pretty wild."

Some people who were not severely injured were attended to by paramedics there, Williams said.

"People were very shaken up," he added. 

The train, which left Grand Central at 5:45 p.m., was running express after leaving White Plains when it suddenly came to a screeching halt just north of the Valhalla station, witnesses said.

Metro-North Harlem line service was suspended Wednesday morning between North White Plains and Pleasantville because of the collision, the MTA said. Buses transported customers between Pleasantville and North White Plains, Donovan added. 

Federal investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were headed to the scene Wednesday morning, said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Sumwalt's team planned to comb the scene for up to seven days, with their full investigation completed in a year, he said.

Harlem line service would likely return before that seven-day period, but MTA officials couldn't say when because that determination is up to the NTSB.

Customers could expect delays and crowding Wednesday as Metro-North provided alternate service for Harlem line customers, the MTA said.

Train service would not be available at the Valhalla or Hawthorne stops, while service would operate normally from North White Plains and all points south, the MTA said. Metro-North would cross-honor tickets on the Hudson and New Haven lines.

Federal investigators promised a rigorous review of the crash.

"Our goal is to find out not not only what happened, but really find out why it happened so we can issue safety recommendations so we can keep this from happening again," Sumwalt said.

Investigators will focus on signals and crossings, survival factors, medical records, recorders, highway factors and fire propagation, NTSB officials said.

Sumwalt did not immediately have any further details about what lead to the fatal crash, but said that he and his team would give another press conference from the scene later Wednesday.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer released a statement in the wake of the crash, saying that it was too early to blame anyone for the incident.

“Our hearts go out to those lost, we pray for those injured and our hats are tipped to the brave first responders who came to the scene of this tragic crash so quickly," Schumer said in the statement. "I have spoken to Tom Prendergast, who has assured me that a full and thorough investigation has already begun."

— Additional reporting by Julie Shapiro and Murray Weiss