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Investigators search for clues in fatal train crash in NY

February 4, 2015

VALHALLA, New York (AP) — Federal investigators began examining the burned-out wreckage at the site of a deadly commuter train crash Wednesday, looking for clues to how the train was functioning and why the SUV that was crushed in the wreck was stopped on the tracks.

Six people were killed in the fiery rush-hour collision Tuesday evening.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were looking at the train’s black-box-style recorders, seeking to learn how fast the train was going, whether its brakes were applied and whether its horn was sounded as it approached the crossing where it slammed into the SUV, NTSB vice chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

Investigators also planned to look at the track signals’ recording devices, interview the Metro-North train’s operators, peer into the wreckage with laser-scanning devices and seek aerial footage, he said.

“We intend to find out not only what happened, but we want to find out why it happened,” he said at the crash site in Valhalla, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of New York City.

Meanwhile, officials were using dental records to identify the badly burned victims.

It was the deadliest accident in the history of one of the nation’s busiest commuter railroads — one that has come under harsh scrutiny over a series of accidents in recent years.

The five dead train passengers were all men, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said. The SUV’s female driver also was killed.

Fifteen people remained hospitalized, seven with very serious injuries, as officials said they were, for now, mystified by the ghastly crash.

“It’s really inexplicable, based on the facts we have now,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on WCBS-AM radio. “Everybody wants to know exactly what happened, so that if something can be corrected, we correct it.”

The wreck happened in an area where the tracks are straight and car traffic can be tricky, as drivers exiting or entering a parkway turn and cross the tracks near a wooded area and a cemetery.

The driver had gotten out of her Mercedes SUV momentarily after the crossing’s safety gates came down around her and hit her car, according to the driver behind her, Rick Hope.

“I said to myself, ‘The clock is ticking here, the gate is down, the bells are ringing — what are you going to do here?’” he told WNYW-TV. “She looked a little confused, gets back in the car and pulls forward” on the tracks.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said it appeared that the woman got out to lift the crossing gate off her vehicle.

All railroad grade crossings have gate arms that are designed to lift automatically if they strike something like a car on the way down, railroad safety consultant Grady Cothen said. The arms are made of wood and are designed to be easily broken if a car trapped between them moves forward or backward, he said.

As of Wednesday morning, transit officials hadn’t found any problems with the tracks or signal, Astorino said.

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Ula Ilnytzky and Meghan Barr in New York; Joan Lowy in Washington; and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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