VALHALLA, N.Y. (PIX11) -- The victims who died in a fiery crash that marks the deadliest in Metro-North history were identified Wednesday as the investigation continued into a series of events that ended with a packed commuter train slamming into an SUV stopped on the tracks in Westchester County.
"We don't just want to find out what happened, but why it happened," NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.
The crash killed six people, including the driver of the Mercedes SUV, who has been identified as Ellen Brody, a 49-year-old mother of three, officials said. Brody was returning home from her job at a Chappaqua jewelry design shop called ICD Contemporary Jewelry when she stopped at the crossing.
Several more people remained in the hospital Wednesday.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene Wednesday morning to comb through the charred wreckage.
MTA chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast and Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti are working with the NTSB on the investigation.
Sumwalt solicited help from the public to piece together the tragic events.
Anyone who saw the crash unfold -- in the train or elsewhere -- is urged to email investigators at witness@NTSB.gov.
What we know
It happened about 7 p.m. Tuesday on the Harlem Line when a train filled with passengers collided with a Mercedes, which was stopped on the tracks when the gates at the two-track Commerce Street crossing near Valhalla came down.
The driver was outside the vehicle when the train hit, shoving her SUV about 10 car lengths, the official said. The third rail pushed up from the track and rammed through the first car of the train, remarkably missing passengers.
Some 400 feet of the third rail pierced the first car, breaking off into roughly 80-foot sections, Sumwalt said citing an initial investigation. At least one of those sections penetrated the second car, as well.
The fire was fueled by the gas from the SUV, Sumwalt said.
“The inside of that first car is melted and charred,” Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said, adding that he trouble sleeping after seeing the carnage.
Doctors and political leaders have remarked that the death toll and extent of victims' injuries could have been far worse but that does not undercut the severity of the crash.
One patient remained in critical condition midday Wednesday, a doctor with the Westchester County Medical Center said at an afternoon news conference.
One patient remained in serious condition, four were in fair condition and two were in good condition, the doctor said. Four others were discharged overnight.
Injuries ranged from cuts and dislocated limbs to burn injuries and smoke inhalation, doctors said.
The shell of the train was removed from the tracks Wednesday afternoon, Sumwalt said.
About 400 feet of track work is needed before trains can start rolling through that portion of the Harlem line, Astorino said in a Wednesday morning news conference. The third rail must also be replaced.
There was no estimated time of service restoration. Astorino said he has asked the MTA to consider the thousands of commuters who rely on that passageway every day.
"We've got busy days ahead of us," Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt did not have much in the way of details at a 7:30 a.m. news conference, and emphasized the same at an 11 a.m. news conference, saying the investigation has just begun.
He vowed to reporters that "the next time we meet, I'll have good, hard facts for you." Federal investigators may hold an afternoon news conference if new details emerge, Sumwalt said.
The on-the-ground investigation could last five to seven days, but analysis of that data and a board vote on what actions to take next could take up to 12 months, according to Sumwalt.
The train's engineer and conductor survived the crash and will be key in the investigation.
They will be interviewed soon, Sumwalt said. Investigators are sensitive to the fact that they likely experienced mental and possible physical trauma in the crash.
Metro-North officials want riders to know that they're safe on the trains as the investigation continues.
"We want Metro-North's customers to know that they can remain confident that their safety, and the safety of our employees, is always the first priority in everything we do," Giulietti said. "We will work closely with the NTSB and local officials to determine the exact cause of this tragedy, and work to ensure such incidents are not repeated."
According to Metro-North officials, train service will remain suspended between Pleasantville and North White Plains until further notice.
Changing death toll
Among the dead are the driver of the SUV and five commuters who were in the first train car.
“When you look at the damage done and the damage by the fire, it’s actually amazing that not more people were hurt in that train,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in the hours after the crash.
The number of deceased has fluctuated multiple times throughout the initial investigation.
Astorino called it "a small miracle" that the death toll shrunk from seven to six Wednesday morning.
The MTA told PIX11 News the latest figure is six dead.
"The train went silent"
Passengers reported seeing smoke and flames in the front car. A witness said he and other passengers tried to break into the first car, armed with a fire extinguisher, but they couldn’t get the front car open. That’s when they realized they needed to evacuate.
“The train went silent,” another passenger recalled to PIX11 News. “You could tell there was panic going on toward the front of the train, like, ‘Walk back, walk back!’”
After trudging through feet of snow to escape the smoldering train, some 400 commuters were taken to a nearby rock-climbing gym for shelter.
Metro-North has created a help center and hotline for those affected by the crash. Information is available at 1-800-METRO-INFO, or at Mount Pleasant Town Hall located at 1 Town Hall Plaza in Valhalla.
A family assistance center was also created at the Office of the Westchester County Medical Center located at 10 Dana Road in Valhalla.