Yonkers, N.Y. • An engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails along a curve, killing four people, experienced a hypnotic-like "daze" and nodded at the controls before he suddenly realized something was wrong and hit the brakes, a lawyer said.
Attorney Jeffrey Chartier accompanied engineer William Rockefeller to his interview with National Transportation Safety Board investigators Tuesday and described the account Rockefeller gave. Chartier said the engineer experienced a nod or "a daze," almost like road fatigue or the phenomenon sometimes called highway hypnosis. He couldn’t say how long it lasted.
What Rockefeller remembers is "operating the train, coming to a section where the track was still clear — then, all of a sudden, feeling something was wrong," Chartier said. "He felt something was not right, and he hit the brakes."
He called Rockefeller "a guy with a stellar record who, I believe, did nothing wrong."
"You’ve got a good guy and an accident," he said. "A terrible accident is what it is."
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."
NTSB member Earl Weener said it was too soon to say whether the accident was caused by human error. But he said investigators have found no problems with the train’s brakes or rail signals.
Alcohol tests on the train’s crew members were negative, and investigators were awaiting the results of drug tests, the NTSB said.
Meanwhile, Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a letter Tuesday that his administration and the U.S. Transportation Department "have serious concerns" following Sunday’s accident and three others that occurred in New York and Connecticut from May through July.
Szabo noted that a federal team has been working closely with Metro-North Railroad and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but said "immediate corrective action is imperative."
The MTA said in a statement that it would work with federal agencies to improve safety, and was "conducting a comprehensive probe of the safety culture throughout the MTA."
Railroad employees were also getting expanded safety briefings.
Federal investigators wouldn’t comment on Rockefeller’s level of alertness around the time of the wreck. They said late Tuesday they had removed Bottalico’s union, the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, as a participant in the investigation for publicly discussing confidential information.
Crews are rebuilding the damaged track where Rockefeller’s train crashed. One of three Hudson Line tracks reopened Wednesday. Commuters said they were grateful service was restored fairly quickly.
"I know it was awful for the people who were hurt but it was awful for Metro-North too. Their tracks were torn up, they’re going to get sued. I’m just so impressed that they’re up and running," said rider Mark Marmer, 45, of the Bronx.
Passenger Matthew Adam, 37, lives close enough to the crash site that he heard it, but he said he too was pleased that service was restored, although, he said he had to reassure his 5-year-old that "daddy is still safe on the train."
Questions about Rockefeller’s role mounted after investigators disclosed Monday that the train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 mph, or nearly three times the 30 mph speed limit.
Rockefeller, 46, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10, Weener said. He lives in Germantown, 40 miles south of Albany.Next Page >
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