Evidence is emerging that the engineer of the commuter train that derailed in New York City on Sunday, killing four people and injuring dozens more, was falling asleep when the accident occurred.
A union official told the New York Post that engineer William Rockefeller was nodding off as the train sped into a dangerous turn. The Metro-North train was making a 75-mile run between Poughkeepsie and New York City.
“He caught himself, but he caught himself too late,” an official with the New York City employees union told The Post. Rockefeller was shocked awake by a warning whistle triggered by the train’s excessive speed.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated Tuesday that there was no evidence that the train’s brakes failed. Likewise, NTSB tests on the signal system have yielded no signs of malfunction as of yet.
Rockefeller has been an engineer for New York City’s Metro-North trains for 11 years, and was a custodian before that. He had an unblemished record prior to Sunday’s deadly tragedy.
The train was travelling at 82 MPH as it headed into a curve that had a speed limit of only 30 MPH. Sources say that Rockefeller woke up, but not in time to slow the train. The train derailed, sending several cars flying off the track and crashing near the juncture of the Hudson River and the Harlem River. More than 60 passengers were injured, some severely. The train was carrying approximately 150 people when it derailed at 7:20 A.M.
Rockefeller has been subjected to drug testing, but sources say there is no indication that these were a factor in the deadly train derailment. His cell phone has been seized as evidence, but New York City prosecutors say that they do not believe he was using the phone at the time of the derailment.
NTSB member Earl Weener told reporters at a press conference on Monday that the brakes were engaged “very late in the game.” Experts estimate that the braking system was triggered only seconds before the crash. It takes approximately a half-mile to bring a train from 82 MPH to a full stop, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Investigators are going through the wreckage car by car to see if a mechanical failure took place at any point. Two recorders, or “black boxes” have been salvaged from the crash site, and will be analyzed by investigators. They are hopeful that relevant information can be retrieved from the devices. There is also surveillance footage from a local camera that is being reviewed.
“It’s too early to tell exactly what happened at this point,” said Weener.
The MTA is under a 2015 deadline to incorporate a set of protocols known as positive train control, which is intended to minimize human error, which is estimated to be responsible for nearly half of rail accidents. The agency is in the process of integrating the necessary systems.
Commuters have been told to expect longer than average delays as the investigtion continues. The Hudson Line would be operational, but on a modified timetable.
This train derailment occurred six months after an eastbound Metro-North train came off the tracks in Connecticut, and impacted a westbound train. That incident produced 73 injuries among commuters and several Metro-North employees.
The fatal train derailment in New York City on Sunday was the first fatality ever on a Metro-North train.
By Mark Clarke