YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) — Investigators believe that the operator of the train involved in a deadly derailment in the Bronx on Sunday fell asleep and was “zoned out” just before the crash. The engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails, killing four people, nodded off at the controls before the wreck, and by the time he caught himself it was too late, a union official said Tuesday.
William Rockefeller “basically nodded,” said Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, relating what he said the engineer told him. The Metro-North engineer, who was operating the train from the front car, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and released.
Rockefeller’s lawyer did not return calls. During a late-afternoon news conference, federal investigators said they were still talking to Rockefeller, and they would not 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.
“He had the equivalent of what we all have when we drive a car. That is, you sometimes have a momentary nod or whatever that might be. How long that lasts, I can’t answer that.”
The officials, who were briefed on the engineer’s comments, weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on 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. In addition to the four people killed, dozens 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.
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 so far with the brakes or signals.
Alcohol tests on the train’s crew members were negative, and investigators were still 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, according to Weener.
“There’s every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep”
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.”
Rockefeller himself, 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.
Rockefeller, 46 and married with no children, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10, according to Weener. Rockefeller lives in a well-kept house on a modest rural road in Germantown, N.Y., about 40 miles south of Albany.
He started as a custodian at Grand Central Terminal, then monitored the building’s fire alarms and other systems, and ultimately became an engineer.
“He was a stellar employee. Unbelievable,” said his former supervisor, Michael McLendon, who retired from the railroad about a year ago. Lizzul said Rockefeller was very serious about his work: “He would not do anything to upset anybody or in any way cause harm.”
Four people were killed and more than 60 were injured in the derailment that took place around 7:20 on Sunday morning.
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