Lawsuits moving forward from the Metro-North Commerce Street train crash from 2015.
Mark Vergari, firstname.lastname@example.org
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – A re-examination of the final 17 seconds before a Metro-North train collided with an SUV at a railroad crossing in Valhalla four years ago is raising new questions about the split-second decisions made by the train’s engineer, The Journal News and lohud.com has learned.
The new analysis, using data gleaned from the train’s onboard event recorder, is being used to challenge Metro-North engineer Steven Smalls’ decision to sound the train’s horn when he spotted a reflection of light at the crossing instead of immediately activating the emergency brake.
During two days of questioning in January, Smalls fended off suggestions by attorneys for the families of six people who died that if he had slowed down and used the brake sooner, the SUV’s driver, Ellen Brody, would have had more time to clear the crossing and lives would have been spared.
Philip Russotti, the attorney representing Brody’s estate, attacked Smalls’ claim that he made the safest choice.
“Mr. Smalls, I will ask you one more time,” Russotti said as a day of intense questioning wrapped up. “If you had slowed down before you put the emergency brake on, it would have taken you longer to get to the crossing. Isn’t that true?”
“I’m not admitting anything,” Smalls replied. “Like I said I did what I did. I took the safest course of action. When I identified what it was, I put the brakes on. This was all 22 seconds.”
The exchange is captured in a transcript of Smalls’ January deposition for a lawsuit brought by the families of Brody and the passengers who died that was obtained by The Journal News and lohud.com.
At points, Smalls, 36, sounded defiant, at other times weary from having to relive a crash that left him with flashbacks and forced him to retire after just nine months in the job.
“You’re asking me to think of something that seems so fast,” Smalls added. “Like I said, I took the safest course of action, identified what it was and put the brakes on.”
Aside from Brody, five passengers riding in the Harlem Line train’s first car were killed in the Feb. 3, 2015, crash.
NTSB cleared engineer
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the deadliest accident in Metro-North’s history cleared Smalls of responsibility for the crash.
Its 2017 report on the accident said Smalls sounded the train’s horn at 6:25:56 p.m., which was 17 seconds before the crash. Fourteen seconds after sounding the train’s horn and three seconds before impact, Smalls activated the emergency brakes while the train was going 59 mph. At that point, the train was about 260 feet from Brody’s car, less than the length of a football field.
The NTSB faulted Brody for the accident, saying she moved her car onto the tracks and into the path of a speeding northbound train in the middle of the evening rush hour. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt suggested Brody “simply did not realize she was on or near railroad tracks.”
Brody, a 49-year-old mother of three from Edgemont, was on her way to a meeting in Scarsdale with a client for her bookkeeping business when she was redirected into Valhalla after an accident backed up traffic on the Taconic State Parkway.
At Commerce Street, Brody exited her 2011 Mercedes ML350 after the crossing’s warning system was activated and a gate came down on the back of her car, according to a witness account. She got back into her car and pulled the car forward onto the tracks and into the path of Train 659 on a 20-degree night, the day after a snowstorm.
Her car was struck at 6:26:13 p.m. and dragged nearly 700 feet down the tracks.
The Harlem Line’s third rail came unhinged and entered the first rail car after piercing the fuel tank in Brody’s car, igniting a fire that consumed the first car and had passengers scrambling out emergency windows onto a snowbank beside a cemetery.
Killed were Walter Liedtke, 69, and Eric Vandercar, 53, both of Bedford Hills; Aditya Tomar, 41, of Danbury, Conn., Robert Dirks, 36, of Chappaqua and Joseph Nadol, 42 of Ossining.
Their estates are suing Metro-North as well as the Town of Mount Pleasant.
Horn blown, train sped up
Among their claims is the faulty design of the third rail, which allowed it to act like a spear and cut through the first car, killing those in its path.
They’ve joined Brody’s estate in claiming Smalls should have slowed down once he spotted the reflection on the tracks ahead.
The NTSB report said Smalls told investigators he was 1,200 feet away when he noticed “a reflection of light” near the Commerce Street crossing but could not immediately determine what was causing the reflection. The event data indicated the train’s horn sounded at 6:25:56 p.m., about 1,424 feet before the collision. It sounded three more times before the collision.
Russotti says that in the seconds after Smalls noticed a reflection, the train’s speed increased from 55 mph to 59 mph.
“If he had even started to slow down when he saw the reflection, there would have been enough time for her to just get over that track,” Russotti said. “She was on the track when she was hit. All she had to do was cross the other track.”
Attorney Andrew J. Maloney, who represents Tomar’s estate, said passenger lives could have been spared if Smalls slowed down or pulled the emergency brake sooner.
‘You just don’t dump the train’
“If he had slowed to 30 mph when he reached the critical spot where he recognized it as an SUV, this could potentially allow him to stop the train before the collision, or if not, it would certainly not have driven the train hundreds of additional feet north where it ripped up the third rail that caused all the damage to the passengers inside the train,” Maloney said.
Throughout the days of questioning, Smalls insisted his training instructed him to blow the horn until he identified what was on the tracks.
“I just know that when you see something, you blow the horn,” Smalls said on the second day of questioning. “You just don’t dump the train and put it in emergency.”
He said he was trained not to use the emergency brake until he identified what was on the tracks.
“Because if you put the train into emergency and you have passengers on a train, you can derail a train doing that,” he testified. “Somebody can be standing up. I mean there’s a number of things that can happen.”
Later, when asked to recall just when he realized it was an SUV on the tracks, Smalls said: “You know, this is really tragic right now and you’re asking me – all I can think about is the tragedy that happened. You’re asking me to recall the distance and I can’t recall the distance.”
Smalls says he stood and braced himself for the crash after he spotted Brody inching her car up on the tracks and stopping.
After the crash, he went through the car trying to evacuate passengers, and checked with rail controllers to see if the third rail had been de-energized, he testified. The front car was beginning to be consumed by flames.
“It was fire,” he said. “It was people screaming. It was frantic. I mean I just had to get people off the train. That was my concern.”
PTSD from the crash
Smalls’ work day started at 10:14 a.m. when he took a train from Southeast into Grand Central. Train 659 left Grand Central at 5:44 p.m., his fourth run of the day.
An Air Force veteran, whose specialty was missile maintenance, Smalls is married and has three children.
The accident has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, which forced his retirement.
“Any time I’m around the train or just the thought of it, I get bad flashbacks,” he told attorneys for the deposition.
Last year, Smalls settled his own lawsuit with Metro-North for an undisclosed amount. Lawyers for the estates are asking a state appeals court to force Metro-North to reveal the terms of the settlement.
Metro-North has so far refused to disclose the terms. The railroad says Smalls acted heroically and was found to have performed “in accordance with all procedures and regulations.”
“Any allegation that Mr. Smalls acted improperly, then or since, is meritless, if not contemptible,” the railroad said in a statement issued in January.
His attorney, Steven Kantor, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.
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