YONKERS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A union official said the engineer at the controls of the Metro-North train derailed this past weekend “nodded off” at the controls and “zoned out” before the accident, while an attorney said the engineer went into a “daze.”
It remains unknown specifically what engineer William Rockefeller said to investigators when he was interviewed on Tuesday evening. But the attorney for Rockefeller said the engineer experienced a a “daze” at the controls before the train went off the track.
Attorney Jeffrey Chartier accompanied Rockefeller to his interview with National Transportation Safety Board investigators and described the account Rockefeller gave Tuesday.
He said Rockefeller’s daze was “almost like road fatigue” or the phenomenon sometimes called highway hypnosis.
Rockefeller also told first responders he began “thinking about nothing in particular” before the derailment, CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, union chief Anthony Bottalico said Rockefeller told him the same thing – that he momentarily lost awareness, and by the time he recovered, it was too late.
“I just know it was a lapse, and that was a nod, or how ever they want to couch it, how ever it’ll be explained today, and it was a mistake that any of us could make,” Bottalico said. “And he caught that mistake too late.”
He earlier compared Rockefeller’s situation to spacing out on the road.
“He zoned out. He had one of those where, ‘Whoa,’ you know, like you drive your car,” said Bottalico, chief of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees.
Bottalico has been providing moral support to Rockefeller as he has been meeting with NTSB investigators. He said Rockefeller would be completely forthcoming with investigators.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s nothing that indicates to me that Billy would do anything but tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Bottalico said.
Rockefeller reportedly has taken the loss of life very hard.
“It’s crushed him. Billy is very affected by this, to the point that he really couldn’t go forward on Monday, and today he’s gotten up the rest and strength to be able to come down here and testify for the NTSB,” Bottalico said.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Earl Weener, a board member at the National Transportation Safety Board, said it was “premature to be able to say” whether the engineer was fully conscious at all times.
He did say the “dead man’s pedal” that the engineer was standing on was not engaged. Had Rockefeller passed out or fainted, left his position, and come off that pedal, the train would have stopped.
Investigators expected to finish interviewing engineer Rockefeller on Wednesday.
Investigator: No Evidence Of Brake Malfunction
Weener said Tuesday afternoon that an analysis of data indicated that the brakes appeared to be working properly when a Metro-North train derailed this past weekend, leaving four people dead.
As CBS 2’s Lou Young reported, Weener said the agency had examined data from before the run and each station stop around the route, and there were no anomalies in brake performance.
“Simply put, based on these data, there’s no indication that the brake systems were not functioning properly,” Weener said.
A more detailed inspection of each rail car was under way on Tuesday afternoon. On Monday night, the trains were moved to secure railyards, and investigators spent the day documenting and inspecting mechanical systems.
Meanwhile, crews on Tuesday were working to reconstruct the tracks that had been damaged by the derailment.
As the investigation continued, officials said partial service was set to be restored Wednesday.
Beginning Wednesday morning, one lane of the Metro-North Hudson Line will be running southbound for the morning rush, while one northbound lane will also be open for the evening rush, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told CBS 2.
Meanwhile, Weener said all of the breath alcohol tests conducted on the engineer and crew came back negative. Other substance tests were still pending.
Investigators Probe What Happened With Engineer
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said investigators began talking to Rockefeller on Monday, but they postponed completing the interview until Tuesday evening.
Bottalico said it was because Rockefeller hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours and was “very distraught.” He said Monday that Rockefeller “is totally traumatized by everything that has happened.”
The official said investigators are checking his cell phone records to see if he was on a call or texting at the time. Weener said no information was yet available Tuesday about Rockefeller’s possible cell phone use.
“We have not looked at that data yet. We’re getting the forensic data from the cell phone. That certainly will be a focus of this investigation, because we have had a cell phone involved in a number of previous accidents,” Weener said. “But at this point in time, I can’t tell you what the use was.”
Investigators were also probing his whereabouts before boarding the train for work.
At the time of the accident, Rockefeller was on his regularly scheduled route, for which he made two runs each day, Weener said.
He had been running the Hudson Line route from Poughkeepsie since Nov. 17, and was on the second nine-hour workday of a five-day week, Weener said.
Rockefeller had recently switched from the 9 p.m. shift to the 5 a.m. shift. It was not known whether the schedule change could have caused him fatigue issues, Aiello reported.
But Weener did not seem to think there was any reason to believe so.
“There’s every indication he would have had the time to get full restorative sleep,” Weener said.
Weener did not discuss any claims about Rockefeller being “zoned out,” or “nodding” saying the interview was still pending.
“We don’t know at this point. The interview was to be conducted this afternoon,” he said.
The key question for Rockefeller on Tuesday remained why the train under his control barreled through a 70 mph zone and into the 30 mph Spuyten Duyvil curve at 82 mph. While investigators continued to examine equipment and track, sources said the focus was squarely on Rockefeller.
Rockefeller, 46, was hired by Metro-North in 1999 as a custodian, Aiello reported. By 2003, he had worked his way up and was promoted to engineer.
With overtime, his salary topped out at $145,000.
Retired railroad supervisor Michael McClendon supervised Rockefeller for several years, and called him a model of safety consciousness.
“Billy was a volunteer fireman from Rhinebeck. He became a member of the fire brigade in Grand Central Terminal. He was certified as a New York City fire safety director, which was part of the job, so to say safety was something uncommon to him – it was everyday practices for him,” McClendon said.
McClendon added that Rockefeller must be traumatized, and knows full well that the fatal events of early Sunday morning have forever changed many lives – including his own.
“I wish it didn’t happen to anybody, but I sure as hell don’t want it to happen to him,” McClendon said tearfully.
Rockefeller lives in a well-kept house on a modest rural road in Germantown, N.Y., about 40 miles south of Albany.
Bruno Lizzul, an MTA machinist who met Rockefeller when they both worked at Grand Central around 2000, described the engineer as honest, hard-working and helpful — so much so that he took it upon himself to show up and help Lizzul renovate his home ahead of a baby’s arrival.
“He went the extra yard. He just decided to extend himself to me,” Lizzul said.
Lizzul said Rockefeller was very serious about his work: “He would not do anything to upset anybody or in any way cause harm.”
Cuomo: Train’s Speed Was ‘Unjustifiable’
Four people were killed in the Sunday crash and more than 60 others were injured.
Investigators haven’t yet determined whether the wreck was the result of human error or mechanical trouble, but on Monday revealed the high speed at which it was traveling at the curve near the Spuyten Duyvil station.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday “that amount of speed is certainly unjustifiable.”
“Certainly we want to make sure that that operator is disciplined in an appropriate way. There’s such a gross deviation from the norm, that there may be other agencies that also want to take a look at his behavior in operating the train,” Cuomo said.
Bottalico said he was confident the investigation would reveal there was no criminal intent.
PHOTOS: Metro-North Train Derailment
Weener said Monday the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop, “very late in the game” for a train going that fast, and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.
Weener cited information extracted from the train’s two data recorders; investigators are also interviewing the train’s crew. Asked why the train was going so fast, he said: “That’s the question we need to answer.”
The speed stunned officials.
“I gulped. It sort of takes your breath away,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “For a train to be going 82 mph around that curve is just a frightening thought.”
Cuomo said the NTSB findings make it clear “extreme speed was a central cause” of the derailment. Investigators are not aware of any problems with the brakes during the nine stops the train made before the derailment, Weener said.
Cuomo said Tuesday that since the crash, the state has been “taking new precautions to protect the safety of New York commuters.”
“At my direction, the MTA will be implementing a safety stand-down that will require all employees to participate in safety briefings,” he said.
When asked, Cuomo said he would feel safe riding Metro-North.
“This was truly an extraordinary, exceptional situation. You still have human beings involved in a system, in almost every system, and when you have human beings involved, you will have accidents,” he told reporters, including WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane. “This seems like a gross mistake and we want to find out exactly why and what and we want to make sure the operator is held accountable for his actions.”
The NYPD is conducting its own investigation with assistance from the Bronx district attorney’s office in the event the derailment becomes a criminal case.
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