UPDATED 02/04/15 12:52 a.m.
VALHALLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Officials said six people were killed Tuesday evening, when a Metro-North train struck a car and caught fire during the evening rush in Valhalla.
The accident amounted to the deadliest in the history of the Metro-North Railroad, and there were worries late Tuesday that the death toll could climb. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has set up a contingency plan involving shuttle buses for the Wednesday morning rush.
As CBS2's Tony Aiello reported, flames were seen shooting out of a train car on the Harlem Line, and smoke poured out for hours after the fire was put out. The inside of the train car was visibly scorched.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to the scene late Tuesday night. He said follow-up investigations would determine exactly what happened, but it appeared that the fire and explosion were all the result of the train hitting the vehicle.
"You have seven people who started out the day to go about their business and aren't going to be making it home tonight. And it's a painful reminder to all of us how precious life is, and sometimes, how random it can be," Cuomo said. "This is a truly ugly and brutal sight. The third rail of the track came up from the explosion, and went right through the car, so it is truly a devastatingly ugly situation to see."
Officials said the electrified third rail on the tracks became dislodged after impact and pierced the floor of the front train car.
"The third rail stops at the grade crossing, and so that's where the contact with the automobile was made, and it entered through the automobile and up through the floor of the car," Metropolitan Transportation Authority President Thomas Prendergast explained.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino got a close-up look at the damage. He spoke to reporters late Tuesday night.
"I was a commuter. This is my hometown, and I would take the train to Hawthorne. And you get on the train. You start reading the papers and listening to your iPad or iPod, and you expect to get home safely. This is the last thing anyone would expect to happen," he said. "So there's a lot of people coping with a very horrific scene."
A Jeep Cherokee was on the tracks at Commerce Street in Valhalla when it was struck by Harlem Line train No. 659 just after 6:30 p.m., Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokeswoman Marjorie Anders told WCBS 880. The train had left Grand Central Terminal at 5:45 p.m.
The gates came down on top of the vehicle, which was stopped on the tracks, the MTA said. The driver got out to look at the rear of the car, got back in, drove forward and became stuck, the MTA said.
WCBS 880's Alex Silverman reported seeing an arm of the crossing gate down at the scene; it is unclear if the gate was down at the time of the accident.
The train shoved the car about 10 train car lengths north, the MTA said.
6 Confirmed Dead When Metro-North Train Hits Car In Valhalla, Catches Fire
The front train car and the vehicle that was struck caught fire, Metro-North told 1010 WINS. The charred sport-utility vehicle was left wedged under the train.
Officials earlier said six people were confirmed dead, and a seventh death was confirmed late Tuesday night. They included the driver of the SUV who was outside her vehicle at the time, and six people on the train.
There were 12 people taken to hospitals. Eleven people were taken to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, and a twelfth to Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow, Astorino said.
Astorino said 10 people suffered serious injuries.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority President Thomas Prendergast said the locomotive engineer was also injured, but survived.
A total of 800 to 850 people were on the train at the time, Anders told CBS2.
Customers self-evacuated to the rear of the train, the MTA said.
Two men from New Fairfield, Connecticut – Ray Pierce and Matt Lucas – told CBS2's Aiello they were anxious to get home and were grateful to have survived unscathed. They felt something they described as a thud, followed by a relatively quick deceleration of the train.
"I was in the third car. We hit a bump. It felt like went over a crossing -- nothing really big," Lucas said. "The train kind of came to a quick stop, and it was kind of quiet for a while."
But passengers quickly realized something was seriously wrong.
"The train came to an abrupt halt," said passenger Sally Barton of Putnam County. "We weren't getting any information, but we knew that something bad was going on because there were lots of police cars, firemen, et cetera."
At one point, an announcement was made that a train had hit a vehicle, and everyone was told to evacuate, passengers told Aiello. Most of the people on the train were calm, but some did panic – particularly as word spread of serious injuries and perhaps even deaths, they said.
1010 WINS' Paul James Speaks With Metro-North Passenger
The passengers said Metro-North employees tried to keep people calm and get them out in an orderly fashion. It would have been dangerous to evacuate the train before the rail was shut down, Aiello explained.
Another passenger, Dan Soloway, described a terrifying experience.
"The train came to a pretty good halt – like, I wouldn't say a slap on the brakes, but pretty abrupt stop. And the first thing I noticed was there was an aroma, as if there potentially could have been a mechanical malfunction," Soloway said. "I was sitting in the last car, so there was no jolt from impact, and after a few minutes at like 6:30, there was an announcement that there was a car that was struck."
Soloway said the train crew came through the entire train asking if anyone was injured, and it soon became evident that the situation was extremely serious.
As passengers exited the train, one shot cellphone video, and many saw flames and smoke as they counted their blessings.
"You get out of the train. It's freezing cold out, and then you realize how fortunate you are," said Ray Pearce, "because it could be a lot worse than having to walk up here a couple miles in the cold."
An investigation into the incident was under way late Tuesday, Astorino said.
"The investigation has begun. The National Transportation Safety Board has been called, they are on their way from Washington to investigate this," he told WCBS 880.
"Apparently, this is not definitive, but the word is that the car tried to blow through the red light at the tracks and get around the gate and was hit," Astorino continued.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has been a strong critic of Metro-North, and recently called for an investigation after two derailments last week. He said the Valhalla accident is more evidence of the need for better safety.
"The immediate question is what caused this horrendous, probably preventable incident that reflects further on the need for safety and reliability in this railroad," he said. "Whatever the cause is found out to be, the focus has to be on improving safety and reliability on this railroad."
Blumenthal said he has heard the accident Tuesday night may not have been the first problem at the Valhalla site.
"Apparently, there have been other accidents at this site, which leads me to think the incident could have been preventable," he said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), also a frequent critic of Metro-North, released a statement.
"Our hearts go out to those lost, we pray for those injured and our hats are tipped to the brave first responders who came to the scene of this tragic crash so quickly. I have spoken to (MTA President) Tom Prendergast, who has assured me that a full and thorough investigation has already begun," Schumer said in the statement. "At this early stage, it is premature to point any fingers of blame, but there are many important questions that must be answered in the coming days."
But Schumer said it was too early to "point any fingers of blame."
"Obviously, there are a whole lot of questions that I and many others will ask in the days to come," he told CBS2.
Following the accident, service was shut down on the Harlem Line between North White Plains and Pleasantville. Other lines were unaffected.
About 400 passengers from the train were taken to a local gym called the Cliffs for shelter. Buses were headed there to get them to their destination in Pleasantville, and buses will also set up a bridge between the Pleasantville and North White Plains stations since service was out in the area, the MTA said.
Train service remained normal between Grand Central Station and North White Plains.
Parts of the nearby Taconic State Parkway were also closed in both directions near the scene, as emergency crews used them as a staging area.
For those who have loved-ones affected by the accident, Metro-North has set up a family assistance center at the Mount Pleasant Town Hall, at 1 Town Hall Plaza in Valhalla. Information also is available at 1-800-METRO-INFO, (800-638-7646), the MTA said.
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