(VALHALLA, N.Y.) — At least six people were killed when a crowded Metro-North commuter train hit a vehicle on the tracks north of White Plains, New York, Tuesday, sparking a fire that gutted the lead car of the train, officials said.
Among the dead were at least five passengers on the rush-hour train and the driver of a black Jeep Cherokee that was struck and pushed about 400 feet, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials said in a late-night news conference. Cuomo said the electrified third rail of the track buckled and pierced the front train car.
“You have seven people who started out today going about their business who won’t be making it home tonight. It’s a reminder of how precious life is,” Cuomo said.
The National Transportation Safety Board launched a go-team to investigate the accident, which is the deadliest tragedy in the history of the railroad.
Angelo Ortiz, one of the first paramedics on the scene, had trouble putting the accident into context hours later.
“What I first saw was the glow of the fire down the road. And as I approached I was in disbelief when I saw the fire was coming from the car that was completely engulfed. When I knew it was the train that was on fire as well, that’s when I realized that this is probably the worst tragedy I’ve ever responded to,” Ortiz said.
“It was incredibly, just very tragic, that’s all I can say. I’m still in disbelief,” he said.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said he’ll never forget what he saw in that front train car.
“It must have been an absolutely horrific scene when that first happened. I am amazed that anyone got off that train,” Astorino said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Based on eyewitness accounts, the MTA said the gates at the railway crossing came down on top of the SUV, which was stopped on the tracks. The driver apparently got out to look at the rear of the car, then got back in and drove forward when the SUV was struck.
A driver who said he saw the train hit the SUV, Rick Hope, described the incident in the same way.
“She looked very calm and she was taking what I thought was an awful long time because I’m thinking, ‘The clock is ticking here.’ The lights are flashing. The gate’s down. You don’t have much time,” Hope told ABC News.
More than 750 passengers were estimated to be on board the train. Following the accident, they were evacuated to the back of the Harlem Line train and then taken to a local rock-climbing gym, The Cliffs, for shelter while buses were sent to bring them to Pleasantville, a stop further up north.
One of the train passengers, Justin Kaback, was commuting home to Danbury, Connecticut Tuesday evening.
“I was trapped. You know there was people in front of me and behind me and I was trapped in the middle of a car and it was getting very hot,” he told ABC News. “All the air was turned off so there was no circulation so it was definitely scary especially when people are walking by on the outside and they said, the train’s on fire, there’s a fire.”
The train left New York’s Grand Central Station at 5:44 p.m. and the collision occurred at 7:08 p.m. ET.
Aerial video of the scene showed the head car of the train in flames and at least one vehicle crushed beneath it. The vehicle was struck at the Commerce Street grade crossing in Hawthorne, New York.
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