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Survivors describe chaotic scene after Metro-North crash

Several people were killed when a Metro-North Railroad

Several people were killed when a Metro-North Railroad train struck a vehicle on the tracks in Valhalla, N.Y. on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Credit: Justin Kaback

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story.

After the jolt came the flames -- suddenly roaring through the Metro-North commuter train's first car. Jagged chunks of metal shot through the air.

Chaos quickly followed as panicked passengers stumbled over one another, desperate to escape the inferno.

One of the survivors, George Anastas, was heading home to Connecticut from a business meeting in Manhattan when the rush-hour train struck an SUV on the tracks in Westchester County. Six people would be killed, including the driver, and another 15 injured.

"It was terrible . . . I thought I was dreaming it," said Anastas, 48, who recounted his nightmare to Newsday on Wednesday. "They were screaming, falling over each other to get to another car."

Anastas escaped with his friend -- who was hospitalized with serious burns to his upper body -- after another passenger managed to pry open an emergency exit. But before he could get out, he witnessed "unspeakable" horrors, including a man who burned to death before he could leave his seat.

"That will stay with me forever," he said.

Outside the train -- in the frigid darkness of a winter night -- burn victims smothered their wounds with snow.

The first car of the train, which left Grand Central Terminal at 5:45 p.m., was completely engulfed by flames by the time Roger King, chief of the Valhalla Fire Department and incident commander, arrived at the scene Tuesday night. Snow piled high near the train tracks from last week's blizzard hampered rescue efforts.

"It was very chaotic," King said. "The hard part was the train tracks don't get plowed, so even though trains are able to go on them, there's still a foot of snow."

First responders, struggling to navigate the drifts, used backboards as sleds to pull people away from the burning train.

Passengers fortunate enough to be farther back in the train felt what they described as a "thud" when it collided with the Mercedes SUV.

Rebecca D'Angelis was seated in the middle of the train when she felt "a little jolt" that she didn't think was anything serious.

But seconds later, passengers fleeing the first car began flooding into the other cars. Thick smoke followed. D'Angelis and fellow passengers, who spoke to Newsday hours after the deadly crash, also fled.

"First came the people, then the smoke," recalled D'Angelis, of Fishkill. "We kept moving toward the back, packing into the last few cars. And the smoke was . . . following us."

Some passengers cried or shouted for help, she said, but most managed to remain calm.

"There was no one telling us what to do or what was happening," she said. "But we smelled the smoke and saw smoke, and . . . we knew there was a fire at the front of the train.

"They got the back exit open, and we all went out -- one at a time. We jumped out the back."

Once outside, she saw massive flames shooting out of the front of the train.

"I just thanked God I wasn't in that first car," she said. "It looked horrible . . . I'm so happy to be alive."

Steve Berg was returning home from his job as an attorney in the city, seated several cars from the front. He said he focused on moving toward the rear to escape.

"I'm trying to stay calm, but it's going through my head that this fire could spread, and I've got to find a way to get out of here," said Berg, 47, of Chappaqua.

He managed to jump out of an emergency exit with the help of two passengers on the ground who were helping people get out one by one.

"It was scary. I'm thinking, 'I've got a fire here, and I'm trapped on a train,' " Berg said. "The main thing going through my mind is the question, 'Could the train blow up?' "

Lenny Miller, 44, of Carmel in Putnam County, was in the back of the train. "I knew something was wrong when people were leaving the car without their coats on, or possessions or bags."

In the same car was Josephine Palmiero, 54, a pattern maker in the garment district who commutes to her home in Patterson, Putnam County. When the train finally halted, her car was in the crossing where the SUV was struck, she said.

"It just stopped really hard, really short," she said. "We didn't hear anything, didn't smell anything. We didn't know immediately what was going on."

Once outside, she saw the burning car. "Then I got scared," she said.

Witnesses said the collision on the tracks caused an immediate inferno.

"It was just this fireball moving along the tracks, pushing the vehicle," Derrick Gilliam of Hawthorne, who was driving nearby, said Tuesday night. "It was a direct hit, just a tremendous, tremendous impact."

The healing process for those traumatized by what they saw could be long and arduous, said Chris Gross, one of those who survived the first-car blaze.

He helped several people escape, but said he saw others who were critically injured.

"I'm just trying to decompress," he said Wednesday. "We survived something horrific."

With Candice Ruud,

Dan Rivoli and Alison Fox

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: George Anastas and Derrick Gilliam. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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