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Senator: Safety Devices May Have Been Insufficient At Metro-North Crash Site

VALHALLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- An elected official on Friday said a lack of warning bells at the site of a deadly Metro-North train accident and fire this week is evidence that safety could be improved.

As CBS2's Lou Young reported, a lone National Transportation Safety Board investigator was seen waiting late Friday for the train at Commerce Street. The crossing has flashing red lights and gates that descend in silence.

There are no warning bells or sound of any kind at the site, except for that of the approaching train.

"We can listen for the bells here. There are none," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) "One sign that maybe rail safety right here ought to have been better."

Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) led a congressional tour of the crash damage Friday, WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reported.

"This crash was preventable," Blumenthal said. "And there have to be ways to provide signal control that stops the train or warnings that stop the cars."

As 1010 WINS' Al Jones reported, Blumenthal said whether it's better signage or warning bells on the crossing gates, changes need to be made to make the crossings safer.

Congressional Tour Of Metro-North Wreckage
NTSB investigators brief members of Congress, including Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, while touring a facility where a Metro-North train involved in a deadly accident is being examined. (Credit: NTSB)

Schumer and Blumenthal prayed silently over flowers at the site where six people died, and spoke about their up-close view of the bent up and burned sport-utility vehicle that was hit by the train, and the lead train car that was pierced by the third rail and burned from the inside.

"It was like looking inside a coffin," Schumer said.

Senators Schumer, Blumenthal Tour Metro-North Crash Site

In a news conference late Friday afternoon, NTSB Board member Robert Sumwalt said warning bells are not required at the Commerce Street intersection, since there is no pedestrian crossing at the station. But he emphasized that the train operator sounded the horn before the crash.

Also Friday, Sumwalt discussed the actions of the engineer and conductor on the train, and how they went out of their way to bring as many passengers to safety as possible.

WATCH: NTSB Briefing On Deadly Metro-North Wreck

The engineer – identified previously as Steven Smalls Jr. – had been on duty since 9:37 a.m. Tuesday and had driven three trains that morning. The train that was involved in the accident was his fourth, and he had verified that everything was working properly before pulling out of Grand Central Terminal, Sumwalt said.

As Smalls – whom Sumwalt did not name – approached the crossing, he noticed that there was a vehicle on the track at Commerce Street in Valhalla. He immediately put the train into emergency braking, and at that point, he saw the car advance fully onto the track, Sumwalt said.

The engineer said he realized that a woman was in the vehicle, but could not see anything else. He then noticed the vehicle disappear beneath the train and felt the collision, but did not hear any explosion, Sumwalt said. He did say he noticed sparks, but did not notice the third rail had pierced the car, Sumwalt said.

The train stopped, and Smalls immediately began getting smoke in the engineer's operating compartment, Sumwalt said. He made an emergency call on his radio, and got out of the compartment as the smoke thickened, Sumwalt said.

NTSB: Metro-North Engineer Helped Bring Multiple People To Safety In Crash, Fire

At that point, Smalls saw a fire in the rear part of the first car, behind the lavatory in the car, Sumwalt said. The fire was moving quickly toward the front, and Smalls assisted with evacuating five or six passengers, Sumwalt said.

When the smoke got too dense, Smalls exited the train through a front side passenger door, Sumwalt said. When Smalls saw a passenger crawling toward the door, he picked the passenger up and carried him in a fireman's pose to an emergency responder, Sumwalt said.

Smalls said he went back into the car to rescue someone else, but was unable to do so because of the fire.

"Our investigators describe his demeanor as very professional," Sumwalt said. "I think it goes without saying that he's very traumatized."

Data recorders also show Smalls sounded the horn as the train bore down on the crossing, traveling 58 mph in a 60 mph zone, Sumwalt said. The train was moving at 48 mph by the time it hit the SUV being driven by Ellen Brody, 49.

The NTSB also interviewed the conductor on Friday morning. The unnamed conductor was in the sixth car of the train, and was told the train had hit a vehicle when he radioed the engineer, Sumwalt said. He made a public address announcement and initially told people to stay calm and remain on the train, Sumwalt said.

Senators Schumer, Blumenthal Tour Metro-North Crash Site

The conductor then walked to the two rearmost cars of the eight-car train to check on the passengers, and soon afterward, the train was evacuated, Sumwalt said.

As the train was being evacuated, the conductor walked forward to ensure that all passengers had been safely evacuated, Sumwalt said. He stayed on the train until he was assured that all passengers between the third and eight cars had been evacuated, Sumwalt said.

Meanwhile, as CBS2's Alice Gainer reported, Sumwalt explained the extent to which the front train car was penetrated by huge pieces of the electrified third rail. He said the train car ingested some 468 feet of the third rail, which split up into 12 pieces of 49 feet each.

Sumwalt said he was in the front train car on Friday.

The train car sustained extensive fire damage, and there were third-rail pieces scattered throughout – some stacked up on the floor, others going up to the ceiling level, Sumwalt said.

One piece of the third rail penetrated the back of the car and ended up in the train car behind it, Sumwalt said.

Investigators believe this is the first incident ever in which the third rail was dislodged and ended up piercing the floor of a passenger car – feeding the fire that melted the interior of the front train car.

"Unheard of, basically – but these are freak accidents," Robert "Buzz" Paaswell, a rail expert and distinguished professor of civil engineering at City College of New York, told CBS2's Tony Aiello.

Sumwalt also addressed the latest information learned about Brody. She held a valid driver's license for the 2011 Mercedes NL 350, and the vehicle had an electronic gearshift selector, Sumwalt said.

According to investigators' preliminary findings, Brody's car was in the danger zone inside railroad crossing gates for about half a minute before the train hit.

Brody got ahead of the crossing gate in inching traffic, then got out of her car to examine it after the gate came down and hit the back of it, a witness has said. But then she got back in, seeming unhurried, and advanced onto the track, the witness told news outlets and investigators.

Brody was killed in the crash and her funeral was held Friday. Services were also held Friday for one of the men killed inside the rain -- Eric Vandercar, a 53-year-old father of two who worked as a senior managing director at Mesirow Financial.

Also killed in the crash were Walter Liedtke, a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Joseph Nadol, 42, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive; Aditya Tomar, 41, who worked in asset management at JPMorgan; and Robert Dirks, 36, a research scientist at D.E. Shaw Research in Manhattan.

The NTSB on Friday was also completing 3D-laser scanning of the interior and exterior of the burned train car, as well as the SUV, to take back to Washington, D.C. for further investigation.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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