Valhalla train crash

Valhalla train crash

On the evening of February Three, 2015, a commuter train on Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line struck a passenger car at a grade crossing near Valhalla, Fresh York, United States, inbetween the Valhalla and Climb on Pleasant stations, killing six people and injuring fifteen others, including seven in “very serious condition.” The crash was the deadliest in Metro-North’s history, as well as the deadliest such crash in the United States since the June two thousand nine Washington Metro train collision, which killed eight passengers and injured eighty.

The crash occurred after an earlier accident on the Taconic State Parkway, which parallels that section of track, had led to the road’s closure in one direction. Drivers from the Taconic State Parkway sought alternate routes, one of which went through the grade crossing. The driver of an SUV was caught inbetween the crossing gates when they descended onto the rear of her vehicle. She reportedly attempted to rectify the situation by proceeding forward across the tracks, instead of backing up. Along with five train passengers, she died when her vehicle was struck by the train. The influence tore liberate more than four hundred fifty feet (140 m) of third rail; after piercing a train car, it went into the front of the train, cracked into sections.

Since grade-crossing accidents typically do not lead to fatalities on board the train, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were particularly interested in determining why the fatalities occurred. They believed that fuel from the SUV may have combined with sparks from the dislodged third rail to cause a fire on board the train. They were interested in finding out how the SUV driver got into the position she did in the very first place; the detour caused by the earlier road accident may also have played a role.


At about Five:30 p.m., shortly before sunset on February Three, 2015, a vehicle traveling south along the Taconic State Parkway north of the hamlet of Valhalla in the town of Climb on Pleasant, in central Westchester County north of Fresh York City, struck another vehicle making a turn onto Lakeview Avenue from the northbound parkway. Responding emergency services closed both lanes of the southbound Taconic and one northbound lane. Drivers heading both directions left the parkway, seeking alternate routes back to it on local surface roads. [1]

At Five:44 p.m., Train six hundred fifty nine of Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line, which provides commuter rail service over an 82-mile (132 km) route from Fresh York City to Wassaic in northeastern Dutchess County, departed Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, twenty six miles (42 km) south of Valhalla. It was an express train of eight carriages, [Two] formed by four Bombardier M7A electrical numerous units, trussed for Southeast in Putnam County, [a] with Chappaqua its very first scheduled stop. [Three] [Four] At the controls was Stephen Smalls, a 32-year-old resident of Orange County and three-year Metro-North employee. He had been an engineer for nine months. [Five]

The part of the parkway in Valhalla remained closed. One detour available to northbound traffic involved using Lakeview Avenue and turning at the large Kensico Cemetery, a brief distance to the west. Lakeview Avenue crossed the two tracks using a grade crossing. [1] The next such crossing was Commerce Street, a lightly traveled local road to the north that intersects the tracks diagonally. It resumes northwest through the cemetery for a quarter-mile (400 m), then turns north again down a slight rise back over another grade crossing to a signalized intersection with the parkway. [1] After a crash at the Commerce Street crossing in one thousand nine hundred eighty four that had killed the driver of the van involved, [6] boom barriers had been installed. [7]

The parkway was still closed around 6:30 p.m., when a Mercedes-Benz ML350 SUV driven by Ellen Schaeffer Brody, 49, of Edgemont, went north on Commerce back towards the parkway. [8] [9] Brody left work in Chappaqua at six p.m. and was going to meet a friend in Scarsdale. [Ten] Behind her was a vehicle driven by Rick Hope of Yorktown Heights, returning home from his job in White Plains. [11] [12]

At the grade crossing, Train six hundred fifty nine was approaching on the western track. The crossing gates descended, warning lights began flashing, and according to Hope, bells began ringing. [b] Hope says Brody’s SUV was in front of the gate as it descended, but not on the tracks. Had she simply remained where she was, he speculated, the passing train would have at most struck a glancing deep-throat, perhaps bruising only the SUV’s front bumper. [12]

The crossing gate struck the top of Brody’s SUV before sliding down its rear and becoming stuck. Hope backed up to give her room to do the same. He instead eyed Brody get out and walk to the rear, evidently attempting to free it. “What struck me was how silent she was—she didn’t seem to be panicking, or in a hurry at all, even tho’ the gate was down,” he said later. “She wasn’t in a hurry at all, but she had to have known that a train was coming.” [12] Brody looked at him, and he motioned to her to come back in his direction, albeit he permits that she may not have seen him due to the glare from his headlights. Brody then returned to her vehicle and, according to Hope, seemed to pause as if she was adjusting her seat belt. The train was getting closer and the situation more urgent. “The thing’s dinging, [b] crimson lights are flashing, it’s going off,” he said. “I just knew she was going to back up—never in my wildest fantasies did I think she’d go forward.” [11]

Instead, Brody did budge forward, harshly thirty seconds after the gate came down on her car, investigators determined later. [14] The train, traveling at fifty eight miles per hour (93 km/h) before the accident, [15] struck the SUV on its passenger side. “There was a terrible crunching sound, and just like that, the car was gone,” Hope said. “Disappeared. It happened instantly. There’s no way she could have known what hit her.” [12] The train was traveling at forty nine miles per hour (79 km/h) when it struck the car. [15]

In the train’s front car, Chris Gross was abruptly thrown out of his seat. “I heard a noisy bang and a lot of screaming,” he recalled. Flames were within a foot of his face; another passenger got the emergency exit open and pulled him out. The five passengers who died were all sitting near him, he claimed. Jamie Wallace, in the 2nd car, said that passengers there primarily attempted to come to the aid of those in the front car, but “we could not get the head car doors open for some reason, it was jammed.” After failed efforts to break the door open, “[a] number of us embarked smelling fumes from the car, the fuel, and we said, ‘You know what, we need to get out.'” [16]

Smalls applied the emergency brakes as soon as he witnessed the vehicle. After the crash, he went back into the searing train several times to rescue passengers. “He did everything he could,” said Anthony Bottalico, head of Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the labor union which represents Metro-North workers. Despite that, the train knocked Brody’s SUV 1,000 feet (300 m) up the tracks, which dislodged more than four hundred fifty feet (140 m) of the third rail, [17] cracking it into thirteen 39-foot (12 m) segments, [Legal] most of which accumulated in the front car’s passenger compartment, and then into the 2nd car. [11] The Fresh York Daily News reported that injuries from them were responsible for most of the deaths on the train. [Nineteen]

Passengers further back in the train heard explosions. “The thing that precipitated people indeed embarking to weirdo out and break the glass and open the door was there was a noisy ‘bam,’ explosion-type thing,” said Fred Buonocore, who was in the fourth car. “And once we leaped off the side, there was another explosion to a lesser degree.” At the very rear, passengers said they felt only a petite jolt. “It felt not even like a brief stop, and then the train just downright stopped,” said Neil Rader, who was sitting in the middle-back of the train. [16] [20]

Brody died, as did five passengers aboard the train. [20] [21] The lead car caught fire [20] and was eventually ruined. [8] Harm was estimated at $Trio.7 million. [15] Passengers who escaped or were evacuated and were not injured were taken to a nearby climbing gym called The Cliffs, where they were able to stay warm until buses arrived. [16] Nine passengers were taken to Westchester Medical Center, with one of them in very serious condition. [22] [11] [23] A police helicopter with thermal imaging equipment scanned the cemetery in search of survivors who might have wandered away from the scene and collapsed into the snow, but found none. [24] There were a total of six deaths and fifteen injuries. [25]

As a result of the crash, Harlem Line service was suspended inbetween Pleasantville and North White Plains. [26] [27] On the afternoon of February Four, the day after the incident, the NTSB gave permission for Metro-North crews to clear the site. Late in the afternoon of February Four, a 100-member team cleared the vehicles, using a high-rail crane to liquidate the SUV. The train was towed to Metro-North’s North White Plains yard after six P.M., and workers proceeded to repair the four hundred fifty feet of third rail. Metro-North service resumed on the morning of February Five, with delays of fifteen minutes for trains to slow down as they passed the site of the accident. [28] Commerce Street reopened to car traffic on the afternoon of February Five. [29]

At that point in 2015, it was the deadliest passenger train crash in the United States since the two thousand nine Washington Metro train collision, which killed nine people and injured eighty others. [30] It is also the deadliest crash in Metro-North’s history [11] and is only the 2nd Metro-North train incident to result in passenger fatalities, after the derailment fourteen months earlier on the railroad’s Hudson Line near Spuyten Duyvil that killed four people. [31]

In September 2016, it was announced that the Commerce Street crossing, where the accident occurred, would be one of forty three MTA railroad crossings to get closed-circuit television upgrades. The CCTV installations, part of a broader project by the MTA to improve safety at railroad crossings, would help the MTA “investigate specific incidents and analyze crossing/traffic operations for targeted modifications to improve safety.” [32]

Fatalities Edit

All but one of the victims were Westchester residents. All of the dead train passengers worked in Manhattan; three of them worked in finance, and two of them at the same stiff.

The victims were:

  • Ellen Schaeffer Brody, 49, of Edgemont, driver of the SUV, and a bookkeeper and sales associate at a Chappaqua jewelry store [33]
  • Robert Dirks, 36, of Chappaqua, a computational chemist at D.E. Shaw Research in Manhattan [34][35]
  • Walter Liedtke, Sixty nine, of Bedford Hills, curator of European art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of a two-volume guide to the Dutch paintings in the museum’s collection [36]
  • Joseph Nadol, 42, of Ossining, an aerospace and defense equityanalyst at JP Morgan Pursue[37]
  • Aditya Tomar, 41, of Danbury, Connecticut, vice president for technology supporting the JP Morgan Pursue asset management team [38]
  • Eric Vandercar, 53, of Bedford Hills, senior managing director of international sales and trading at the Fresh York office of Mesirow Financial[39]

On the night of the accident, the NTSB opened an investigation into the accident, and dispatched a go-team to the site. [40] They planned to stay for a week, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. [41]

Investigators said they were particularly interested in one of the crash’s unusual aspects. “We do have grade-crossing accidents, and most of the time it’s fatal for occupants of the vehicles, and not for train passengers,” Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB told The Journal News, Westchester County’s main daily newspaper. “We intend to find out what makes this accident different.” [41] George Bibel, author of Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters, agreed that this is uncommon. “Normally you’d expect the train to sweep the car off the tracks,” he said. However, there were other exceptions to this pattern, such as the two thousand five Glendale train crash in Southern California, at that time the deadliest in the history of Metrolink, where an SUV abandoned at a grade crossing by a driver who determined not to commit suicide after all derailed the train that struck it, killing 11. [42]

Another unusual aspect was the configuration of the third rail. Unlike other American commuter-rail agencies that operate trains powered by third rails, which have a contact shoe on top of their third rail, Metro-North trains’ contact footwear draws current from the bottom of the third rail during operation. The Metro-North’s under-running third rails are designed in order to prevent ice from building up on top during winter months and reduce the possibility of inadvertent contact with the high-voltage rail; as a consequence, the Metro-North third rails are much safer than the traditional over-running third rails. [Legitimate] To facilitate this, the finishes of the third rails adjacent to grade crossings have a slight upturn. [42] “This has never happened before, and this is a uncommon configuration of a third rail,” U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, said. “Do those two add up to the explanation for this terrible, terrible tragedy? Very possibly.” But Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official, told the Associated Press it would be unlikely to be sure that an under-running shoe lifted the rail without also doing tests to see if the same thing would happen in the more common over-running configuration. [Legal]

They theorized that the fire aboard the train might have been caused by gasoline from the SUV, ignited by a spark from the third rail and the force of influence. However, said Sumwalt, “the big question everyone wants to know is: Why was this vehicle in the crossing?” The NTSB team believed the crossing was functioning decently, but was aware also that the earlier accident on the Taconic had led to more traffic through it. “We want to understand what, if any, effect that detour had in setting up this accident.” [41]

Some area residents suggested the crossing itself was the problem. Lance Sexton, a Manhattan resident who commutes to the area to assemble electronic equipment, described using it to The Fresh York Times: “[C]oming down the hill of the cemetery, you have to put the brakes on earlier . There’s a bank there that always collects water, making it even more dangerous.” He also said he and his coworkers often complained about how quickly the train came after the gates went down, gates which had been installed after a one thousand nine hundred eighty four crash killed a van driver. “How safe is that crossing—for this to happen again?” that victim’s sister asked the newspaper. [43] While the crossing had undergone upgrades in latest years, including brighter lights and an extra sign warning passing drivers not to stop on the tracks, in two thousand nine another upgrade, which would have added a sign with flashing lights 100–200 feet (30–61 m) up the road west of the tracks was not installed. “It’s way too early to be guessing about what could have or couldn’t have made a difference,” said a spokesman for the Fresh York State Department of Transportation. [Legitimate]

Three days later, the NTSB investigators announced that all safety features at the crossing—the gate, the train’s horn, and a sign sixty five feet (20 m) away warning drivers not to stop on the tracks—were in good working order and had functioned decently at the time of the accident. The gates had gone down thirty nine seconds before the train reached the crossing, they said, meaning Brody had spent almost that amount of time inwards them. They would next concentrate on whether she was familiar with the road and whether she was using a phone at the time. [14]

The NTSB released a preliminary report into the accident on February 23, 2015. [15] Two years after the accident, however, it had still not released its final report. Local officials who awaited any safety recommendations the board was expected to make, including Rep. Nita Lowey, contrasted that with the ten months it took the NTSB to issue its final report on the December two thousand thirteen Spuyten Duyvil derailment on Metro-North’s Hudson Line, which killed four, and the sixteen months it took to issue its report on the two thousand eight California wreck that had prompted Congress to mandate positive train control. The NTSB did not explain why it was taking so long but said it expected the final report to come out in spring 2017. [44]

Three months after the accident, the MTA received thirty four separate notices of claim, the very first step toward filing a lawsuit, from victims of the crash and their families, on the very last day possible. Most were from passengers injured or killed, and one was from the family of Ellen Brody, the driver of the SUV struck by the train. All claimed negligence by the agency contributed to the crash. [45]

Philip Russotti, lawyer for the Brody family, called the crossing “an accident waiting to happen.” The claim cited a “confluence of circumstances” that led to Ellen Brody’s presence on the tracks at that time. The treatment to the crossing lacked the lights and signage required by federal regulations that would have given her enough advance notice. In 2009, it noted, money was allocated for extra safeguards at the crossing that would have met those standards, but the equipment was never installed. [45]

A railroad substation building along the tracks also blocked the train from view as she reached it, the claim also said. Ideally, it concluded, the crossing was so potentially hazardous it should have been closed a long time ago. “This horrific accident was not the fault of Ellen Brody,” Russotti said. In addition to the MTA, the claim said the Brodys intended to sue the town and the county. A lawyer for the MTA declined to comment. [45]

Fresh York private injury attorney Howard Hershenhorn filed a negligence lawsuit for Robert Dirks’ wifey Christine Ueda. It names Metro North, the train engineer Steven Smalls Jr., Westchester County and the town of Climb on Pleasant among the defendants. The complaint lists bad visibility, poorly designed third rail, local official negligence and unsafe speed among the reasons for the defendants’ alleged negligence. “We are going to concentrate on the operation of the train and the train operator and his failure to recognize and stop the train,” Hershenhorn said. “We have spoken with qualified experts who have told us that these are very strong areas.” [46]

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