December 4, 2013

Union official: Train engineer ‘nodded’ before fatal N.Y. crash

By Jim Fitzgerald and Tom Hays
The Associated Press

YONKERS, N.Y. – An engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails along a curve, killing four people, nodded at the controls just before the wreck, and by the time he caught himself it was too late, a union official said Tuesday.

click image to enlarge

In this photo taken on Dec. 1, Metro North Railroad engineer William Rockefeller is wheeled on a stretcher away from the area where the commuter train he was operating derailed in the Bronx borough of New York.

The Associated Press

William Rockefeller "basically nodded," said Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, relating what he said the engineer told him.

"He had the equivalent of what we all have when we drive a car," Bottalico said. "That is, you sometimes have a momentary nod or whatever that might be. How long that lasts, I can't answer that."

Rockefeller's lawyer did not return calls. During a late-afternoon news conference, federal investigators said they were still talking to Rockefeller, and they wouldn't comment on his level of alertness around the time of the Sunday morning wreck in the Bronx.

Separately, however, two law enforcement officials said the engineer told police at the scene that his mind was wandering before he realized the train was in trouble and by then it was too late to do anything about it. One of the officials said Rockefeller described himself as being "in a daze" before the wreck.

The officials, who were briefed on the engineer's comments, weren't authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Questions about Rockefeller's role mounted rapidly after investigators disclosed on Monday that the Metro-North Railroad train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 mph, or nearly three times the 30 mph speed limit. Dozens of people were hurt.

"He caught himself, but he caught himself too late. ... He powered down, he put the train in emergency, but that was six seconds prior to derailment," Bottalico said.

Rockefeller, who was operating the train from the front car, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and was released.

National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener repeated that it was too soon to say whether the accident was caused by human error. But he said investigators have found no problems with the brakes or signals.

Alcohol tests on the train's crew members were negative, and investigators were awaiting the results of drug tests, the NTSB official said.

On the day of the crash, Rockefeller was on the second day of a five-day work week, reporting at 5:04 a.m. after a typical nine-hour shift the day before, Weener said.

"There's every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep," Weener said.

Weener didn't address specifically what the engineer was doing in the hours before his shift started but said part of the investigation will be creating a 72-hour timeline of his activities.

Bottalico said Rockefeller "never said anything about not getting enough sleep." But he said the engineer had switched just weeks earlier from the night shift to the day shift, "so he did have a change in his hours and his circadian rhythms with regard to sleep."

The New York Police Department is conducting its own investigation, with help from the Bronx district attorney's office, in the event the derailment becomes a criminal case.

Rockefeller, meanwhile, stayed out of sight. But his union and former co-workers spoke up in his defense.

"This is a man who is totally distraught by the loss of life, and he's having a tough time dealing with that," Bottalico said.

(Continued on page 2)

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