NYC Train Engineer Had "Lapse" Before Crash: Official

(KXAS) - The engineer at the controls of the Metro-North train that derailed as it sped around a sharp curve in the Bronx nodded at the controls just before the crash that killed four people and injured more than 60 others, a union official said.

Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, recounted on Tuesday the statement he said the engineer made to authorities.

"There was a lapse and that was a nod or however they want to couch it," said Bottalico. "And it was a mistake that any of us could make and he caught that mistake too late."

Two law enforcement officials told NBC 4 New York that the engineer, William Rockefeller, said to first responders at the scene of the crash that he had zoned out just before the derailment and was not able to recall specifics about the moments before the train came apart and slid down a bank toward the Harlem River near the Spuyten Duyvil station, sending passengers tumbling, some out windows.

The NTSB said at a Tuesday briefing that authorities could not yet describe the engineer's condition just before the crash.

"Was the engineer fully conscious at all times? It's premature to be able to say, 'yes he was or wasn't," NTSB member Earl Weener said. "Again, that's what the investigation hopes to determine." 

Rockefeller's activities in the 72 hours before the crash are being reviewed as part of the investigation. Officials said Tuesday that the engineer's initial alcohol breath test was negative; blood test results were still pending. 

The NTSB said the train's black box shows it was hurtling down the tracks at 82 mph before crashing on a curve where trains are required to go 30 mph. Investigators are still probing whether human or mechanical error was responsible for the train speeding.

The NTSB said a day after the crash that it did not appear there were any problems with the brakes, and reiterated that conclusion again Tuesday, after further testing.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that there didn't seem to be any equipment or track issues, and said it appeared to be a case of "excessive speed and reckless handling of the train."

Officials said Rockefeller's work schedule had recently changed to the early morning shift. He had begun running the route on Nov. 17, two weeks before the wreck.

Bottalico said Rockefeller was familiar with the route and qualified to run it.

Weener said Rockefeller reported to work on Sunday at 5:04 a.m. for the trip that was set to leave Poughkeepsie at 5:54 a.m., and left on time. He was on his second day of a five-day work week.

The NTSB has also been interviewing the crew members and reviewing Rockefeller's cell phone, which it said was part of the forensic process. No information from the cell phone review was available Tuesday, Weener said.

The Bronx district attorney is also involved in the investigation, a spokesman said.

In case of an engineer becoming incapacitated, the train's front car was equipped with a "dead man's pedal" that must be depressed or else the train will automatically slow down, officials said. The NTSB said the train cars were still being examined and it wasn't known if the pedal was functioning.

Bottalico said Rockefeller was "traumatized" by the derailment and "distraught over the loss of life." 

An attorney for Rockefeller didn't immediately return calls Tuesday.

"Once the NTSB is done with their investigation and Billy is finished with his interview, it will be quite evident that there was no criminal intent with the operation of his train," Bottalico said.

Rockefeller, 46 and married with no children, has worked for the railroad for about 20 years and has been an engineer for 11, Bottalico said. Rockefeller lives in a well-kept house on a modest rural road in Germantown, N.Y.

He started as a custodian at Grand Central Terminal, then monitored the building's fire alarms and other systems, and ultimately became an engineer.

"He was a stellar employee. Unbelievable," said his former supervisor, Michael McLendon, who retired from the railroad about a year ago.

McLendon said he was stunned when he heard about the crash, shortly after opening his mail to find a Christmas card from Rockefeller and his wife.

"I said, 'Well, I can't imagine Billy making a mistake,'" McLendon said. "Not intentionally, by any stretch of the imagination."

The federal Department of Transportation, citing "significant concerns about the current situation at Metro-North," has ordered the MTA to immediately implement a confidential close call reporting system, which allows railroad employees to anonymously report close calls.


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