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NTSB: Engineer In Fatal Metro-North Derailment Has ‘Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea’

Agency Has Not Determined If Sleep Condition Contributed To Crash

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP)Federal investigators have found that the engineer at the controls of the Metro-North train that derailed and left four people dead and dozens more injured has a serious sleep disorder.

A medical document made available Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board said engineer William Rockefeller has “severe obstructive sleep apnea.”

The NTSB did not say whether the engineer’s disorder contributed to the crash in the Bronx.

Apnea can disrupt normal sleep and result in sleepiness.

Officials determined the train was going 82 mph as it approached a 30 mph zone leading into a curve in Spuyten Duyvil on Dec. 1. Four people were killed in the accident and 50 were injured.

As CBS 2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported Monday, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer was shocked by the revelations.

“It almost comes out of a nightmare short story. It comes out science fiction,” Schumer said. “An engineer of a train hurtling down the tracks could have sleep apnea.”

Rockefeller told a union head he had “nodded” and zoned out just before the train derailed.

The document says Rockefeller had not been tested for the disorder before the derailment.

The NTSB report said a sleep study was ordered because Rockefeller “did not exactly recall events leading up to the accident.”

The test found that while Rockefeller slept, he had about 65 “sleep arousals” per hour. Scientists say as few as five interruptions an hour can make someone chronically sleepy. The report said Rockefeller’s apnea apparently was undiagnosed before the accident.

The report also said Rockefeller’s blood and urine tests after the accident revealed small amounts of aspirin and an over-the-counter antihistamine that carries a warning that it could impair the ability to drive.

The NTSB noted that sleep apnea is not mentioned in Metro-North’s medical guidelines.

Another stunner was Rockefeller’s own admission that he was out of it before the crash.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Rockefeller told NTSB investigators two days after the incident happened. “It was sort of like I was dazed, you know – looking straight ahead; almost, like, mesmerized.”

Rockefeller explained it was “like driving a long period of time in a car and staring at the taillights in front of them, and you get almost that hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead.”

Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan said the railroad was reviewing the documents.

The Bronx district attorney is still deciding whether to press charges, but Anthony Bottalico, an executive board member with Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing Metro-North workers, said the NTSB findings confirm what he knew all along.

“It was accident,” he told WCBS 880′s Marla Diamond. “I doubt there would be any chance of a successful prosecution.”

The report notes that Rockefeller’s work schedule had recently changed from late night to early-morning shifts.

The NTSB said determination of a cause would come in its final report.

Apnea is more common in those who are overweight, and the medical report describes Rockefeller, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, as obese. Records in the report indicate he was 204 pounds in 2008, 246 pounds in 2011 and 274 pounds in 2013, but down to 261 pounds after the accident.

The report says a sleep medicine specialist prescribed an apnea treatment known as CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, which uses a mask and hose to push a steady flow of air pressure into a person’s airway during sleep.

Schumer wondered on Monday why Metro-North, which requires regular physicals for all train engineers, did not know.

“Why didn’t they know? Why wasn’t it reported?” Schumer said. “This is a serious illness.”

Schumer said Rockefeller’s sleep issues would have been discovered if there had been a camera in the engineer’s compartment.

“That should diagnose any kind of sleep apnea that would occur on the job,” Schumer said. “But it’s appalling to think he had this illness, and had the lives of so many people in his hands.”

Commuters at Grand Central Terminal on Monday afternoon said Metro-North should have known about his condition before hiring him.

“It’s a little scary,” said Anna Medeiros of Ossining. “I mean, you would think that whoever is driving is awake during the whole time.”

“I think they need to test engineers more and put more scrutiny on them,” said Donald Brown of Harlem.

“Most corporations, especially somebody who’s running a train or a police officer … have to take very stringent physical exams, and sleep apnea would have come up,” one woman told 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria.

But straphanger Larry Price said the incident would have been avoided if there was a second engineer on the train.

“You’ve got to have a backup,” he said.

Straphanger David Martinez of the Bronx told CBS 2’s Kramer that cameras also could have solved the problem.

“It makes me feel angry, because they should have known better than to have cameras,” Martinez said.

In the aftermath of the crash, federal regulators and lawmakers pushed for Metro-North to install alert systems in all trains to prevent similar accidents.

The railroad has implemented some new safety protocols, including more speed limit signage and automatic speed reduction technology. Joseph Giulietti took over as Metro-North president earlier this year and has stressed safety as the top priority.

On the issues of cameras in the cabins, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board has issued a request for proposals, but there is currently no timetable for an installation because a vendor has not been selected.

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