"The witness said that individual was involved in an accident and went around the gate," Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said. Ryder said the witness was in the other vehicle involved in the minor two-car crash that preceded Tuesday's train crash by "seconds."
The fleeing car was hit by two commuter trains and burst into flames, killing the driver and two passengers, Ryder said. The Long Island Rail Road provided limited service on Wednesday as railroad employees worked to remove the damaged train cars and repair the tracks.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a "full investigation into the collision," which also forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 passengers and crew members on the two trains. Police said an eastbound train that had just pulled away from the Westbury station struck the car at 7:20 p.m. The car was then struck again by a faster-moving westbound train. The speed limit on that stretch of track is 80 mph (129 kph). The three people in the car were killed and eight people on the westbound train were injured, three of them seriously, officials said.
More than 200 trains pass through the crossing each day. The crash was the fifth incident there in 40 years and the second involving a train hitting a vehicle, according to federal safety data. In the others, a person walking or standing on the tracks was hit by a train.
County Executive Laura Curran, who joined Ryder and other officials at a news conference, said the crash shows how foolish it is to drive around the gate. "I cannot repeat this enough," Curran said. "Please do not try to beat the train. Nothing is so important."
The westbound train derailed after hitting the car and crashed into the concrete platform, sending chunks of concrete and rebar into the front car of the train. "It was completely destroyed, the front cab," Ryder said.
Ryder said the engineer and a passenger in the front car survived by running backward through the car before it hit the platform. He said emergency workers rescued the two from the mangled train car. Dr. Anthony Boutin, head of the emergency department at Nassau University Medical Center, said three people were hospitalized with serious injuries and are expected to completely recover. The other crash victims were treated for minor injuries.
The grade crossing is one of several scheduled to be eliminated as part of an LIRR modernization project. The railroad's "A Modern LI" website says that crossing "poses a safety risk to drivers, pedestrians and LIRR customers" and will be replaced with an underpass.
After a spike in deaths at railroad crossings in 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a public awareness campaign with the slogan "Stop! Trains Can't." The Federal Railroad Administration developed a crossing-finder app and persuaded technology companies to add grade-crossing warnings to GPS devices and mapping applications.
In 2017, there were 2,115 grade-crossing crashes in the U.S., resulting in 271 deaths. That was the highest yearly grade-crossing death toll in a decade; 2008 had 290. Full-year data aren't available for 2018.
Chris O'Neil, chief spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that the circumstances of Tuesday's crash, though tragic, don't point to any safety issues that require further investigation or new recommendations by the agency.