Train engineer claims he zoned out, sources say

Anthony Johnson reports from the Bronx
December 3, 2013 1:49:13 PM PST
Sources familiar with the investigation tell Eyewitness News that Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller claims he was in a semi-conscious state as he entered the turn at Spuyten Duyvil. He likens this condition as akin to a trance or a hypnotic state.

"He tells us he was not asleep, but he was not fully-there, either," the source said. "But it happened at the worst possible moment, on one of the most dangerous stretches of track on the system."

When he realized he had zoned-out, he "snapped-back," but it was too late.

NTSB investigators said the train was going 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph turn Sunday morning and ran off the track killing 4 people and injuring dozens. The MTA announced Rockefeller is officially on unpaid leave.

Investigators looking into derailment have not found any evidence of brake trouble during the train's nine previous stops and no problems with track signals, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Weener said there were "no anomalies."

During an unannounced call-in to WNYC this morning, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said emphatically that the investigation has now ruled out equipment failure as a cause, which leaves only human error as the likely cause.

"We know the basic facts, it was about the speed. And it was a truly excessive amount of speed. There was no equipment failure, no track problem. This is now a very serious situation," he said. The operator has rights, but there are all sorts of liability questions. And there will be all sorts of law enforcement agencies, as well as the MTA, that my guess will be taking a look at this situation and determining the liability and the culpability, if any.

"First and foremost, we want to make sure that the MTA riders are safe and this operator is not going be operating a train anytime soon, that I can assure you. But there will be a process and he has rights and other agencies may want to take a look at possible degrees of liability also. I think we should be deliberative in the process, vis-a-vis the operator. But I don't want to speculate as to what may or may not be the cause for what was excessive speed and reckless handling of the train," Cuomo said.

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

Interviews are underway with the engineer and the other three crew members. The engineer has been identified as William Rockefeller of Germantown, N.Y. Union representatives say Rockefeller is traumatized by the accident, and is talking with the NTSB, but they have not yet disclosed what he told investigators. His cell phone has been confiscated to examine call and text records.

Engineers may not use cellphones while on the train, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North.

The results of drug and alcohol tests are not yet available.

"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.

By Tuesday morning, all of the derailed cars had been removed from the tracks as the NTSB released the area back to Metro-North so full-scale repair work can begin. Repairs are expected to take a few days, officials said. The MTA is working around the clock to restore service, as the 26,000 weekday riders of the affected line are continuing to use shuttle buses and cars to get to work.

The train wreckage will be moved to a secure area over the next few days for continued examination.

About 150 people were on board when the train ran off the rails around 7:20 a.m. Sunday while rounding a bend where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet in the Bronx.

Just weeks ago, the head of Metro-North had to answer some tough questions about their safety record before the NTSB. With Sunday's derailment, the number of deaths on the railroad this year hit a record 7, just one fewer than all its fatalities in the previous 9 years.

In May, dozens of passengers were injured when a Metro-North train derailed on the New Haven Line. A preliminary report from the NTSB says an inspection two days before found faulty track that was never fixed and is now suspected of playing a role in that derailment. Then in July, a freight train went off the Metro-North tracks just 1700 feet from Sunday's derailment.

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