VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 04:  Officials inspect a Metro-North train crash with a sport utility vehicle that occured last night on February 4, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. The crash started a fire in the train cars that killed six people, including the driver of the vehicle.
NTSB: Driver had 39 seconds to avoid train collision
02:54 - Source: CNN

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Tuesday's fiery crash was the deadliest in Metro-North Railroad history

SUV stopped on the tracks; driver and five people aboard train were killed

New York CNN  — 

Friends remember Ellen Brody, a mother of three, as someone who wasn’t careless or put others at risk.

But the Mercedes-Benz SUV she was driving Tuesday evening suddenly moved into the path of Metro-North train, triggering the deadliest crash in the history of the New York commuter railroad, a safety official said.

The engineer saw the SUV and applied the emergency brake as the train traveled at 58 mph, just under the speed limit of 60, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Thursday.

It was 6:26 p.m.

The train sounded its horn appropriately. The flashing lights and gates at the crossing functioned properly, officials said.

The eight-car train stopped 950 feet after the brake was applied, Sumwalt said. That’s about the distance that the SUV was dragged. Brody and five train passengers were killed.

A witness who was driving a car behind the SUV told the NTSB that the vehicle stopped at the crossing Tuesday night. The SUV driver came out of her vehicle after her rear window was struck by a gate.

The warning lights activated 39 seconds before the collision, the NTSB said. The gates came down a few seconds later – leaving the SUV in the train’s path about half a minute.

Caption:VALHALLA, NY - FEBRUARY 3: First responders work at the scene of a train accident on February 3, 2015 in Valhalla, New York. (Photo by Andrew Delaney/Getty Images)

The witness told investigators that he saw flashing lights that signaled the approaching train. He said he backed up slightly and gestured at Brody to back up away from the gate.

She returned to the vehicle and, in what seemed like “enough time to put on a seat belt,” suddenly moved the SUV forward into the train’s path, Sumwalt said.

“What we have here is … a mosaic,” Sumwalt said. “We’re going to take different pieces of information … assemble it and see what that picture looks like.”

The goal, he said, is to construct “a timeline so we know exactly what happened and when.”

Steven Harrod, a railroad expert and former professor at University of Dayton in Ohio, said oncoming trains rarely can stop in time for vehicles on tracks.

“It is a physical reality,” he said. “The train’s ‘failure to stop’ is not a surprise or a cause of the accident… This accident was unfortunate bad luck … It is a constant battle against vehicles on road crossings.”

The SUV driver and other motorists had been diverted to the area of the rail crossing after another unrelated accident on a nearby parkway, according to the NTSB.

More than a dozen other people were injured in the crash.

It’s not known why the SUV stopped on the tracks in Valhalla, about 30 miles north of New York City, the NTSB said. Sumwalt said he believed Brody had owned the SUV a short period of time.

‘She had just a beautiful soul’

“This was a tragic accident and you wonder why it happened, but certainly this it was not her,” said Paul Feiner, Brody’s longtime friend. “She was not a careless person. She would not ever do anything that would put anybody at risk.”

A mother of three girls, Brody, 49, worked at a jewelry store for 10 years, according to friends. She had just left the store when she was killed.

“Her girls really adore her,” said Benjy Silverman, Rabbi at Chabad of the Rivertowns. “Her husband and her were very close. It’s really just a beautiful family unit.”

Virginia Shasha, a co-worker at the store, said: “In one word…she just had a beautiful soul. She looked for the good in others. She was, she looked for the good.”

Brody’s actions behind the wheel moments before the crash are a focus of the investigation, officials said.

“There are two big questions here: Why was the car on the train tracks?” Sumwalt asked. “And what caused this accident to be fatal for occupants of the train?”

Sumwalt said the NTSB is also examining the train’s exits, the “crashworthiness” of the rail cars, and the intensity of the fire – which may have been fueled by the SUV’s gas tank.

Some 400 feet of the electrified third rail perforated the first rail car and part of the second in 80-foot sections “breaking apart section by section, just basically piling up” in the cars, according to the NTSB.

Brody was killed in the collision along with train passengers Walter Liedtke, European paintings curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Eric Vandercar, a senior managing director for Mesirow Financial; Robert Dirks, a scientist with D. E. Shaw Research; and Joseph Nadol and Aditya Tomar of J.P. Morgan.

Brody’s husband, Alan, on Facebook expressed his gratitude to those who have reached out.

“Thank you to those who shared their condolences for the terrible tragedy that took my beloved wife, Ellen, whom so many of you knew. We will be saying goodbye to her on Friday Feb. 6th, 10 am at 303 Broadway, Dobbs Ferry, NY.”

CNN’s Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.