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Engineer assisted passengers, carried one to safety, NTSB says

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer places flowers Feb. 6,

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer places flowers Feb. 6, 2015 at the site on Commerce Street where a Metro North Train struck a vehicle on the tracks in Valhalla, Westchester, on Tuesday , resulting in a fiery crash that caused six fatalities. Credit: Uli Seit

The engineer on the Metro-North commuter train involved in a fiery collision with an SUV helped at least five passengers escape the burning first rail car -- carrying one injured man to safety, a federal investigator said Friday.

As smoke started filling his compartment, the engineer got on the radio to declare "Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!" according to National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt.

Then, as the flames spread, he helped passengers survive the Tuesday evening rush-hour crash in Valhalla.

In the heavily damaged first car -- speared by fragments of the electrified third rail -- the engineer saw a man crawling toward the door, Sumwalt said at a briefing Friday night.

"He picked the passenger up, grabbed him, held him in a fireman's pose and turned around and handed him to an emergency responder," the NTSB member said.

The engineer, who spoke with investigators late Thursday, tried to go back into the car to help others but was thwarted by the flames. Said Sumwalt: "I think it goes without saying that he's very traumatized."

The engineer's mother has identified him as former Long Islander Steven Smalls Jr., 32, a Copiague High School graduate.

The crash, the deadliest ever for Metro-North, killed five passengers and the driver of the Mercedes-Benz SUV, Ellen Brody, 49, of Scarsdale.

Funerals were held Friday for Brody and passengers Eric Vandercar, 53 of Bedford Hills. Also killed were passengers Robert Michael Dirks, 36, of Chappaqua; Walter Liedtke, 69, of Bedford Hills; Joseph Nadol, 42, of Ossining; and Aditya Tomar, 41, of Danbury, Connecticut.

The latest details to emerge from the investigation show the train had "ingested" 12 pieces of the third rail -- each about 39 feet. They pierced the first rail car, including one that had gone through the SUV first and another that broke through the roof and into the second rail car, Sumwalt said.

So far, the probe appears to be focusing on two aspects: the configuration of the third rail, which differs from those used on other train lines because a metal shoe slips underneath the rail rather than skimming along the top, and the actions of the SUV driver, who remained in her stopped vehicle despite horn blasts from the train.

Investigators want to know if the rail's design contributed to its disintegration. They also want to know how familiar Brody was with her vehicle, which she had not owned for long.

Investigators were expected to be on scene for a few more days gathering more "perishable evidence" before returning to Washington, D.C., to analyze data. That includes train black box data that will show speed, when electricity was cut off to the third rail and train function.

Sumwalt said the collision at the Commerce Road crossing near the Taconic State Parkway occurred four seconds after the engineer activated the emergency brake, slowing the train from 58 mph to 48 mph.

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) Friday visited the crash scene and viewed the charred wreckage in a warehouse. "When you think of the people who were lost in there and you think of the people that were injured, it's just so sad and gut-wrenching," Schumer said.

He and other federal lawmakers said more must be done to prevent future accidents, including updating technology, creating stronger rails and improving crossings to make them safer.

Blumenthal said authorities also have to find better ways to stop trains and adopt stronger penalties for those who circumvent crossings. "This tragedy could have been prevented and should be prevented," he said.

Sumwalt said the engineer was operating his fourth and final train of the day -- an eight-car express from Grand Central Terminal bound for Chappaqua. He performed a brake test before leaving the terminal and noted "no handling problems."

According to Sumwalt, the engineer first noticed a reflection as he approached the crossing and realized it was "the front end of a vehicle that was on the track." The engineer then activated the brake.

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