Investigators and rescue personnel inspect a derailed southbound Metro-North train near the Spuyten Duyvil train station on Dec. 1 in the Bronx borough of New York.
(Photo: Mark Vergari, The Journal News)
The engineer driving the New York commuter train that derailed Sunday "basically nodded" at the controls and caught himself too late to prevent the fatal high-speed crash on a sharp curve, a union official said Tuesday.
"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," Anthony Bottalico, of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, told the Associated Press.
Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller reportedly told police after the crash that he was "in a daze" shortly before the 7:20 a.m. derailment in the Bronx, which killed four passengers and injured 63, one law enforcement official told AP.
The investigation has so far ruled out equipment failure or faulty tracks.
At a news briefing Tuesday afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said tests performed along the Hudson River showed "no anomalies" with the train's brakes.
"There's no indication that the brake systems were not functioning normally," he said.
Weener noted that the automatic systems known as positive train control "possibly could have prevented" the accident. Data recorders showed the train was traveling 82 mph heading into a 30-mph curve just seconds before the derailment.
Weener also announced that alcohol tests of Rockefeller and the other crewmembers were negative and that drug test results were pending.
Investigators had not yet examined data from Rockefeller's cellphone.
Investigators Tuesday afternoon were interviewing the 46-year-old Rockefeller, who Weener said had been a Metro-North engineer for 10 years. He began driving the Hudson Line full time on Nov. 17.
Rockefeller was in the second day of a routine five-day schedule, and he "would have had time for full restorative sleep" from his usual nine-hour shift the day before, Weener said. Rockefeller reported for work at 5:04 a.m. Sunday; the accident happened at 7:20 a.m.
STORY: Train was going 82 mph into curve before crash
STORY: NTSB already was investigating Metro-North
Local media reported earlier Tuesday that investigators believe Rockefeller may have been distracted or possibly asleep before the crash.
Investigators have not yet looked at data from his cellphone to determine whether it played a role.
Rockefeller is "distraught over loss of life," so his interview Monday with investigators was cut short, Bottalico told The Journal News of Westchester. "He hasn't slept."
Rockefeller has been swarmed by reporters since he was released from the hospital and has been forced to leave his home in Germantown, N.Y., Bottalico said, declining to say where he is staying.
The New York Post, citing sources close to the investigation, reports that Rockefeller told investigators he had "zoned out" as the train roared into the curve and was jolted back to reality when a warning whistle blew. CNN, citing law enforcement officials familiar with the probe, is reporting that immediately after the derailment Rockefeller said he was was "in a daze. I don't know what happened."
DNAinfo.com - a city news website that pledges "original, aggressive reporting on critical topics" - went a step further, saying its unidentified sources contend Rockefeller "all but admitted he was falling asleep" immediately before the crash.
At a news conference Monday, Weener said that preliminary data from the train's recording devices showed its throttle went to idle just six seconds before the crash, and that maximum braking occurred only five seconds before the train derailed.
The 75-mile trip started at 5:54 a.m ET in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., bound for Grand Central Station. More than 100 people were aboard when the crash occurred at about 7:20 a.m. The train had made nine station stops before the crash, and investigators are "not aware of any prior problems or anomalies with the brakes," Weener added.
Russell Quimby, who spent 22 years as a rail-safety investigator for the NTSB, toldThe Journal News the issues likely "revolve around human performance, distraction fatigue, that sort of thing," and that it was "highly, highly improbable" that the brakes had failed.
"If you're having trouble braking, you would know before the point of no return," said Quimby, who retired in 2007 and runs a Nebraska-based consulting business offering expert-witness services in rail-accident cases.
The derailment also renewed interest in advanced anti-collision technology.
Positive train control is designed to compensate for human error, by automatically enforcing speed limits and forcing emergency stops to prevent train-to-train collisions.
Metro-North currently employs automatic train control (ATC) to prevent collisions. It also can slow down trains if the engineer doesn't respond to beeps, but a Metro-North spokeswoman said ATC wasn't set up to provide alerts at the derailment site.
PTC is more robust than ATC and is actually a set of technologies: Equipment is placed on the trains, at the control center and along the rails. Then they are connected wirelessly and with GPS to seamlessly work together. They need to be interoperable, meaning passenger and freight carrier's systems would be able to communicate with each other if they use the same tracks. For example, Amtrak uses the Hudson Line.
The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act required commuter and intercity rail carriers to install PTC systems by December 2015.
"They have been passing laws to add equipment to automatically stop trains for almost 100 years," George Bibel, author of Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters said Tuesday. "The problem has always been there is no algorithm that stops a heavy freight train and a light passenger train safely."
Lawyer Joel Faxon told The Journal News that his firm, Stratton Faxon, based in New Haven, Conn., has been retained by families of two passengers who suffered significant injuries in the derailment.
Faxon is already representing a dozen other clients in claims against Metro-North related to the derailment in May. In that incident, 73 passengers were injured in a Metro-North derailment near Bridgeport, Conn.
Faxon declined to identify his latest clients because of privacy concerns, but he said he plans to file notice of claims within 90 days.
At this point, it appears there was either operator error or a "catastrophic failure" of a component of the Metro-North train, he said.
"If you were driving a car at that speed and killed somebody, it would be negligent homicide - no question," Faxon said.
Faxon said the victims "are very thankful they survived the crash," but "at the same time, it's a tragic situation, and it takes a long time for people to overcome something like this."
Theresa Juva-Brown, Lee Higgins also report for The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News. Contributing: John Bacon, USA TODAY; Khurram Saeed, The Journal News