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Dental Records Used to Identify Victims of NY Suburban Train Crash

Wednesday, 04 February 2015 04:56 PM

The fiery crash of a New York commuter train in Westchester County left some of the six victims so badly burned that only dental records can identify them.

The deadliest collision in Metro-North Railroad’s history happened Tuesday night after a rush-hour auto accident on the Taconic State Parkway. Cars were diverted, crossing the tracks.

Gates came down atop an SUV, whose driver got out, got back in, then tried and failed to move forward, said Tony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents the engineer.

The train struck the trapped vehicle, killing the driver and triggering an explosion and fire that left five dead on the train as the electrified third rail of the track pierced the rail car and set it ablaze.

"This was as gruesome as I have seen," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on CBS television.

Of 12 victims taken to Westchester Medical Center, four had been discharged by 12:30 p.m. and one remained in critical condition, said Ivan Miller, medical director of the hospital emergency room. All were in the front train car, he said.

The crash, which the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, came 14 months after a fatal Metro-North accident in the Bronx, and obstructed a transit artery for thousands of workers. There is no service on the Harlem line between North White Plains and Pleasantville, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the railroad.

Fatal conflagration

The accident occurred at 6:30 p.m., according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. The site was Commerce Street in Valhalla, about 28 miles north of midtown Manhattan, at the bottom of a snowy hill. Two red lights flank the road to alert drivers to trains, and a red and white striped barrier is meant to prevent traffic from crossing.

The express train was traveling about 60 mph before the emergency brakes were hit, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said in an interview Wednesday.

The impact drove the Mercedes-Benz SUV about 400 feet, and gasoline in the tank exploded and ignited the first train car, Cuomo said. The explosion caused the electrified third rail of the track to pierce the train, he said. The MTA initially said the vehicle was a Jeep Cherokee but later said it was a Mercedes.

No return

The bodies of five of the six victims were unrecognizable, Astorino said. Later, he told reporters that the five on the train were men. The driver was a woman, he said. The victims haven’t been officially identified.

Carl Fulgenzi, the town supervisor for Mount Pleasant, which includes Valhalla, said the victims were so badly burned the only way to identify them is with dental records.

"When they didn’t return home, their families contacted the police," Astorino said.

Among those killed was Eric Vandercar, a 53-year-old senior managing director in institutional sales and trading at Mesirow Financial in New York, the Chicago-based firm said in an emailed statement.

Another victim was Walter Liedtke, the curator in European paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to The New York Times.

In a small office complex across the street from the crash site, Nicole Sanders, a trainer at Ladimax Sports and Fitness, watched the flames from her second-story window.

Passengers swarmed "in droves, almost zombie like" to the parking lot, she said, and some headed inside to make phone calls and stay warm. A few were picked up by ambulances.

"It was like a bad, bad scene from a movie," Sanders said.

Behind a barricade Wednesday morning, the eight-car train sat on the tracks next to the Kensico Cemetery. Fire and smoke damage completely blackened the interior of the lead car with singe marks licking out of the tops of doors and windows. Cars after the first appeared undamaged.

Rescue effort

Bottalico wouldn’t name the engineer, whom he said has been working for Metro-North three years and has been driving trains nine months. The worker is an Air Force veteran and attempted to rescue people before smoke overcame him.

"Military training really helped him in this situation," Bottalico said. "Everyone did the best they can."

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to Westchester County early Wednesday. Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a crash-site news briefing that the team will collect "perishable evidence" — information that can be lost over time — during the week. The train will be moved to a storage facility as soon as possible, he said.

Investigators plan to interview the operators within 48 hours, he said.

Trains between Pleasantville and North White Plains were to remain suspended "until further notice," according to a statement posted on the Metro-North website. Limited service for buses and trains will be available for Upper Harlem Line customers, it said.

There will be shuttle trains between Wassaic and Southeast stations with bus connections to Beacon Station on the Hudson Line for train service to Grand Central. There will be limited train service to Goldens Bridge with bus connections directly to North White Plains Station.

Spuyten Duyvil

Tuesday’s accident came after a Metro-North train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx in December 2013, killing four passengers and injuring 63. The engineer in that accident had a sleeping disorder, the NTSB said in October.

U.S. investigators said last year that Metro-North lacked a "safety culture."

Railroad management failed to investigate damaged tracks and follow its own safety protocols, the NTSB said in a report released Nov. 19.

The type of intersection where Tuesday’s accident occurred, a so-called grade crossing, has a bloody history.

Six people were killed and 16 were injured when a tractor-trailer failed to stop at a grade crossing and hit an Amtrak passenger train in Miriam, Nevada, in 2011.

The accident prompted NTSB to call on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration to develop a plan to help states improve safety. The administration said in a May 1, 2013, letter to NTSB that it was still working on it.

New York has 5,304 grade crossings, according to U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York. There were 81 accidents, 15 deaths, and 23 injuries at grade crossings from 2012 through 2014, according to Maloney.

The MTA is the largest U.S. mass-transit system. It serves an average 8.6 million riders per weekday on the New York City subways and buses as well as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

© Copyright 2018 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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The fiery crash of a New York commuter train in Westchester County left some of the six victims so badly burned that only dental records can identify them.
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Wednesday, 04 February 2015 04:56 PM
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