The Metro-North engineer whose train slammed into an SUV came to the aid of at least five passengers after the fatal accident -- including one he picked up and carried to safety, an NTSB official said Friday.
The engineer told the NTSB he then tried to rescue someone else but couldn't because of the intensity of the subsequent fire that wound up killing five passengers, the official said.
"I think it goes without saying that he's very traumatized," NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.
The engineer's mother has identified him as former Long Islander Steven Smalls Jr., 32, a Copiague High School graduate.
The engineer helped out at least five passengers, Sumwalt said, and when the smoke got dense, he got out and saw a passenger crawling.
"He picked the passenger up, grabbed him, held him in a fireman's pose, turned around and handed him to an emergency responder," Sumwalt said.
As the engineer guided the train Tuesday evening in Valhalla, "he initially saw a reflection at the crossing and soon thereafter that realized it was the front end of the vehicle that was on the track," Sumwalt said.
He put on the emergency brakes, then saw the vehicle go forward on the tracks, Sumwalt said.
"He then noticed the car disappear beneath him . . . He did not recall any explosion. He then noticed sparks but he did not realize the third rail had penetrated the car."
The engineer got on the radio to shout "emergency" several times and left his control compartment because it was filling up with smoke, Sumwalt said. In the rear part of the car, he saw flames, the investigator said, and the fire was moving very quickly toward the front of the train.
The engineer then assisted passengers.
He was qualified to be engineer in March 2013 and operated the railroad's Harlem line and it was his fourth run of the day, which had started with a 9:37 a.m. train, Sumwalt said. He had tested the horn, radio and other parts of the train as required, Sumwalt said, and noted no problems in handling of the train and its controls.
Federal lawmakers who viewed the train Friday questioned whether the damage could have been less extreme with better technology, from improved lighting to stronger rails.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was among New York and Connecticut lawmakers who were briefed Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board as they toured the warehouse holding the rail car and other evidence in Tuesday night's fatal crash between a Metro-North Railroad train and a sport utility vehicle on the tracks at a Valhalla crossing.
The third rail had disintegrated, thrusting into the first train car, and Schumer said he saw about 39 feet of the third rail in 15 pieces in the car, including one that had pierced the roof.
"The questions about the third rail and the crossing loom large," said Schumer, who questioned whether there was enough lighting at the crossing.
Lawmakers also went to the accident site, where the senator placed flowers. Rep. Nita Lowey and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, both representing parts of Westchester, also examined the rail car and went to the crash scene.
"It's a gut-wrenching experience to be here . . . particularly to be taken on the railroad car, to see the how charred and terribly burnt it was," Schumer said at the crash site.
"When you think of people who were lost in there and you think of the people who were injured, it's just so sad and gut wrenching. It's one of the worst experiences I've had in elected life."
The NTSB said the train's event recorder and other evidence indicate the crossing gate signals and other warnings worked properly, including the engineer's blasts of the train horn and the brightness of the crossing gate lights.
Their probe appears to be focusing on two aspects: the actions of the SUV driver, Ellen Brody, 49, of Scarsdale, who remained in her SUV despite horn blasts from the train, and the construction of Metro-North's electric third rail, which differs from other rail lines because it is encased by a shoe on the bottom instead of on the top.
Investigators want to know how familiar Brody was with her vehicle, which she had not owned for long, and why she did not move forward or back from tracks.
They also want to know if the rail's construction contributed to its disintegration, with broken shafts thrusting into the train car and burning it.
An NTSB investigator on Friday set up a three-dimension scanner to create a virtual model of the burned train car, images that can be used to create computer simulations.
After the warehouse tour and crash site visit, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the accident could have been preventable. He said authorities have to find better ways to stop trains and adopt stronger penalties for those who circumvent crossings.
"This accident is heart-breaking and gut-wrenching and mind-bending in how it could've occurred," he said. "Overwhelmingly what strikes me is this tragedy could have been prevented and should be prevented."