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Investigators examine burned-out wreckage in deadly train crash

Published:Thursday | February 5, 2015 | 2:00 AM

VALHALLA, NY (AP):

Federal investigators began examining the burned-out wreckage at the site of a deadly commuter train crash yesterday, looking for clues that might explain the baffling behaviour of a woman whose SUV was stopped between the descending crossing gates.

Six people were killed in the rush-hour collision between the train and the SUV 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 north of New York City.

Meanwhile, officials were using dental records to identify the badly burned victims - five men on the train and the female SUV driver, officials said.

ONE OF THE DEADLIST ACCIDENTS

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.

Several people remained hospitalised, at least two with critical or serious injuries, as officials said they were mystified by the ghastly crash.

"It's really inexplicable, based on the facts we have now," said Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"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."

The wreck happened in an area where the tracks are straight but 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 got 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'?" asked Hope. "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.

Railroad grade crossings typically have gate arms designed to lift automatically if they hit a car or other object on the way down, railroad safety consultant Grady Cothen said. The wooden arms are designed to be easily broken if a car trapped between them moves forward or backward, he said.

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