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6 dead after commuter train hits SUV north of New York City

A commuter train hits a car about 30 miles from New York City; 6 people are killed

Six people were killed and more than a dozen injured when a commuter train carrying hundreds of people slammed into an SUV north of New York City and burst into flames.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Aaron Donovan said a Metro-North Railroad train from New York struck a vehicle on the tracks near the town of Valhalla about 6:30 p.m.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning" that six people had been killed, five passengers on the train and the driver of the Mercedes SUV on the tracks. The death toll had been put at seven late Tuesday night by multiple officials. 

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FOR THE RECORD

Feb. 4, 5:11 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the train crashed into a Jeep. Officials initially said the vehicle was a Jeep, and later said it was actually a Mercedes SUV.

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“You have .... people who started out today to go about their business and aren’t going to be making it home tonight,” Cuomo told reporters at a late-night news conference.

Donovan said 13 people were taken to hospitals, 12 of them with serious injuries.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast said at the news conference that Metro-North’s train No. 659 had left Grand Central Terminal for an express run to Chappaqua, N.Y. The train "came upon a car that was on the tracks. It struck that car, pushed it about 400 feet down the track," he said. 

Witnesses interviewed on local TV included Rick Hope, who said he was in the car behind the Mercedes. Hope told WABC that traffic at the crossing was heavier than usual because of an accident on a nearby expressway.

“This is a common shortcut,” Hope said of the route over the tracks. He said cars were moving slowly as they approached the rail crossing and were stopped for a brief time. By then, he said, the SUV was on the tracks. The crossing gate came down, hit the back of the vehicle, "bounced off her roof and slid a little bit down the back window," Hope said.

"I started backing up" to make space for the Mercedes driver to also back up, Hope said. "I back up a little bit. I see the woman. She gets out of the car, she walks to the back, she kind of jiggles the gate with her hand a little bit."

Hope said he backed up some more to make plenty of space for the SUV to reverse to a safe spot.  Instead, the driver got back into the car. "She moves forward, probably 15 feet, right in front of the train," he said.

"I’m thinking the clock is ticking here, the gate’s down. You don’t have much time," Hope said. He speculated that the driver thought she could get across the tracks before the train arrived.

The train's third rail went "totally through" the front of the train, said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino on Twitter, leading to a "horrific scene." 

A witness, James Barnett, uploaded a video of the post-crash scene to YouTube. It showed smoke and flames pouring out of the train and illuminating the night.

A businessman near the crash scene said he and others rushed outside when they heard what happened.

"You could smell smoke, you could see the flames, and just a ton of rescue workers," said Cary Williams, general manager of a climbing gym, the Cliffs at Valhalla. "There was just a lot of disbelief at what had just happened."

Williams told the Los Angeles Times that he and several employees helped bring passengers out of the snow and cold and into the gym. About 400 passengers took shelter there while they waited for buses, officials said. By 10:30 p.m., most had left, Williams said. 

News helicopters hovering over the scene showed that the fire had been extinguished by 10:30 and that no cars had derailed.

One unidentified witness told news crews that he was sitting in the next-to-last car and felt only a "jolt." No one in the rear of the train had any clue what had happened up front, he said. 

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it was sending a team to investigate the crash. 

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted that a team from the Federal Railroad Administration was heading to the scene for a "full investigation."

The train had left Grand Central Terminal about 5:45 p.m., the height of rush hour. It had traveled about 30 miles before the collision.  

The MTA's Prendergast said the speed limit where the crash occurred was about 65 mph. The train normally carried more than 600 passengers, he said, but he could not say how many were aboard Tuesday night.

The crash was the latest in a series of serious and often fatal incidents to involve Metro-North, which until two years ago had prided itself on its safety record.

In December 2013, a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx while rounding a curve. Four people were killed, and investigators determined that the train was traveling more than 80 mph on a stretch of track zoned for 30 mph. 

In May 2013, 60 people were injured, five critically, when two Metro-North trains collided in Connecticut.  That same month, a Metro-North train struck and killed a railroad employee on the tracks.

Investigations have blamed all of the incidents on lapses in safety standards. In the case of the December 2013 crash, investigators faulted the railroad for not properly screening the train’s operator for sleep apnea and other medical issues.

Federal officials also have criticized the rail line for what it said was a dangerous emphasis on on-time performance over safety and maintenance.

Metro-North is the second-largest commuter railroad in the United States, after the Long Island Railroad, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's website. It carries more than 281,000 people each weekday in and out of New York City, serving 122 stations on 795 miles of track.  

Susman reported from New York, Mai-Duc from Los Angeles. 

For more breaking news, follow @cmaiduc

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

Feb. 4, 5:28 a.m.: Updated with new death tolls, which was revised downward.

Feb. 3, 9:48 p.m.: Updated to remove repetition.

8:56 p.m.: Updated with link to a video of the post-crash scene. 

8:46 p.m.: Updated with comments from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA chairman. 

8:39 p.m.: Updated with seven dead.

8:30 p.m.: Updated with a witness who was behind the Jeep and saw what happened. 

8:17 p.m.: Updated with more quotes and context. 

8:09 p.m.: Updated with witnesses' statements and other details. 

7:20 p.m.: The story was updated with two people saying that seven people had died, additional background and information about train service.

The story was originally published at 6:54 p.m.

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