It was about 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3rd when a black Mercedes-Benz SUV, driven by Ellen Brody, 49, seemed to be stuck on a railroad crossing in the NYC suburb of Valhalla. Brody’s SUV was hit by an oncoming Metro-North Railroad passenger train at 58 mph, and the first passenger car erupted in flames within seconds. Brody was killed in the collision, along with five passengers on board the train, and over a dozen additional passengers received serious injuries, including burns and missing limbs.
But among the many details that make this crash stand out from the others, one chilling question seems impossible to answer: Every single warning signal and flashing light went off to alert Brody that a train was coming — and she calmly tried moving both the car and the crossing gate that was blocking her path — so why didn’t she act faster to get her car off the tracks?
According to Rick Hope, the driver of the vehicle behind Brody, her SUV had just driven onto the tracks when the crossing gate went down, hitting the passenger side on the back of her vehicle. Hope states that he backed up his own car when the gate descended and the warning alarms began blaring, thinking that Brody would immediately back up her SUV through the crossing gate.
Although drivers who blatantly ignore crossing gates can expect to be ticketed for negligence or for failing to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances, it’s clear that in this case, the most reasonable decision would have been for Brody to back up and break through the gate.
As Augustine F. Ubaldi, a railroad engineering expert, explained in a recent New York Times article, “The gates are designed to break. If you get stuck at the crossing, floor it. Smash the gate. It’s a far less severe consequence than staying on the crossing.”
Instead of backing up, however, Brody returned to her car after getting out to inspect the crossing gate, and she proceeded to drive forward — moving her car even more toward the center of the tracks.
Although the train was going two miles per hour under the speed limit and the conductor pulled the emergency brake upon seeing Brody’s SUV, the train couldn’t stop fast enough. It hit the SUV head-on, pushing it about 1,000 feet forward, and ripping out the electrified third rail for 400 feet, causing the first passenger train car to erupt in flames instantly.