NEW YORK –Justin Kaback hardly felt a thing when the commuter train he was riding smashed into a vehicle that had attempted to cross the track Tuesday night in Valhalla, north of New York City. He didn’t even know there had been an accident nor that the crash would kill the driver — a woman whose Mercedes SUV appeared to have gotten stuck on the track — and five other people on the train, a transit official said. The crash was the deadliest in Metro-North Railroad’s 32-year history, transit officials said. More than a dozen others were injured.
The governor’s office and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday morning revised the total number of fatalities, initially reported as seven. Kaback said he received no warning about the fire about to ignite in the first car of the train. The SUV’s driver may have gotten out to see what was holding it back, a rail official said. She got back in the SUV and may have been trying to drive off the tracks when the Metro-North Railroad train hit her at about 7 p.m., the official said.
The northbound train, which had left New York City’s Grand Central terminal more than an hour earlier, pushed the SUV 400 feet, said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. A third rail pushed up from the track and rammed through the entire first car of the train.
Inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Of the 15 being treated for injuries at hospitals, “about nine” were seriously injured, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told CNN on Wednesday morning.
All Kaback felt was the train braking, coming to a complete stop, he told CNN’s Don Lemon.
“They shut down the engine. They cut power. They cut the air,” he said. Then there was dead silence.
The first word of anything gone wrong came from other passengers. They came back from the front of the train, saying they smelled gasoline. “We’ve got to move to the back of the train,” Kaback said they told him. While the passengers fled from the gas fumes, a short announcement over the train’s loudspeakers informed passengers that the train had struck a car, he said.
He heard no further details or instructions.
‘The train is on fire’
Outside the train, somebody yelled, “The train is on fire,” and the car he was in was growing hotter, Kaback said.
Kaback felt claustrophobic. “That’s when I knew it was time to get off,” he said. The other passengers did, too. They threw open emergency doors and broke windows, he said. Everyone exited in an orderly manner without panic. The snow on the ground, which sloped sharply down from the track, made climbing off the train difficult. Once outside, Kaback took pictures of the first car of the train, as flames climbed out its windows. Photos of the scene and aerial video from CNN affiliate WCBS showed flames and smoke pouring out windows of the commuter train.
The first car was the only one that caught fire, Astorino said. “Everything is melted inside.” There was not much damage from the second car back. The train was full when the accident happened, Astorino said. “There were about 650 (people) total on the ride home.” The crash was the deadliest in Metro-North Railroad’s history, said Marjorie Anders, spokeswoman for the MTA. The previous deadliest crash happened in December 2013, when four passengers were killed and more than 70 were injured in a derailment on the Hudson Line in the Bronx.
NTSB teams with expertise in several areas, including highway and rail traffic signals, crossing gates, fire propagation and recorders, will be at the scene for five to seven days, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday morning in Washington as investigators prepared to travel to the site.
The total investigation might take about 12 months, he said.
By Ben Brumfield and Ralph Ellis
CNN’s Ray Sanchez and Marina Carver contributed to this report.