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NTSB: Train going too fast at curve before wreck

5:27 PM, Dec 2, 2013   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- A Metro-North commuter train was traveling 82 mph before it derailed on a 30-mph curve Sunday, killing killing four people and injuring more than 60, federal investigators said Monday.

Earl Weener of the National Transportation Safety Board said data from the train's recording devices revealed that its throttle went to idle just six seconds before the train crashed, and that brake pressure went to zero -- maximum braking --only five seconds before the accident.

The speed zone approaching the curve is 70 mph, Weener said at an afternoon news briefing.

He said it's not yet known why the train was traveling so fast or whether the accident was caused by equipment failure or human error. The rail cars and locomotive will be moved to a secure location for further examination.

The train made nine station stops before the crash, and investigators are "not aware of any prior problems or anomalies with the brakes," Weener added.

Investigators began interviewing the 46-year-old engineer, William Rockefeller, on Monday, along with three other crew members. Rockefeller's cellphone is being examined.

Rockefeller has worked for Metro-North for about 20 years, 11 of them as an engineer.

He "has a good reputation." Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the briefing.

Investigators Monday retrieved the second data recorder in the passenger car that landed precariously close to the edge of the water where the Hudson and Harlem rivers come together. The first recorder was located in the locomotive that was pushing the train from the rear.

Rockefeller, who was being treated for injuries, has told officials the brakes did not respond when he applied them as the train approached the curve, the New York Daily News reports.

"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," said Anthony Bottalico, the executive director of the rail employees union.

He described Rockefeller as "totally traumatized" by the crash and said he was cooperating with the investigation.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said earlier that Rockefeller had been banged around but was conscious and alert after the accident and was able to give police a brief statement before being taken to a hospital. Asked about reports that the Rockefeller said that he'd applied the brakes but that the train did not respond, Kelly said: "I'm not in a position to confirm or deny that at this point."

Weener said he expects the NTSB to be at the derailment site for a week to 10 days. After documenting the condition of the cars and other components of the scene, "We will then turn the rail over to Metro-North who will then ... get the line back in operation,'' Weener said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who visited the scene, said Monday that he thinks speed will turn out to be a factor in the derailment. He told NBC's Today show that other possible factors ranged from equipment failure and operator failure to a track problem.

The cars jumped the tracks as the train was rounding a sharp curve. Twenty-six of the injured, including two Metro-North employees, remained hospitalized Monday; Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Aaron Donovan said cranes were hoisting the tilted Metro-North car that was connected to the locomotive back on the track. The locomotive already was righted.

Some of the 26,000 weekday commuters who normally take Metro-North into New York City endured a much longer trip Monday as they had to switch to buses to get around the area of the derailment.

Rodney McLean, of Beacon, normally needs only an hour and 15 minutes to get to his office on Wall Street. But Monday, it took him 2 1/2 hours just to get from Beacon to Yonkers, making a stop at every station along the way.

From Yonkers he was boarding a bus that would take him around the crash site to a subway stop in the Bronx where he would catch the final leg of the journey. The bus and subway portion would add as much as 45 minutes more, making the day's commute well over three hours,The Journal News reports.

The Poughkeepsie train station in New York, from which the ill-fated train had left Sunday morning, was desolate Monday morning. The normally full parking lot still had plenty of spaces at 6:45 a.m, the Poughkeepsie Journal reports, as commuters took alternate transportation.

David Ortiz, 40, of Poughkeepsie, was one of the few taking the train Monday morning, but said he would have to take a bus in the middle of the trip, adding 40 minutes to the ride into New York City.

"I'm hoping that they'll figure something else out today, because, you know, I commute all week," Ortiz said. "I'm going to have to get back here the same way. I haven't figured that part out, either."

Amtrak, which shares tracks with the crippled Hudson Line, suspended its service between New York City and Albany, N.Y., after the tragedy but resumed service shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday.

Officials said the accident is the second passenger train derailment in six months for Metro-North Railroad and the first passenger death in an accident in its nearly 31-year history.

In July, 10 cars loaded with garbage on a CSX freight train also derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station.

"It's a very, very narrow area," senior MTA board member James Sedore Jr. said of the station area. "When we had the problem with the CSX, the feeling I got - it was nothing official - some of the cars were not loaded correctly. The middle car swayed."

Contributing: Nina Schutzman and Sarah Bradshaw of the Poughkeepsie Journal; Will David of The Journal News; the Associated Press

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