YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) — An engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails along a curve, killing four people, experienced a hypnosis-like "daze" and nodded at the controls just before the wreck, and by the time he caught himself it was too late, people representing him said Tuesday.
Attorney Jeffrey Chartier accompanied engineer William Rockefeller to his interview with National Transportation Safety Board investigators 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 and hitting the brakes," 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."
Federal investigators wouldn't comment on Rockefeller's level of alertness around the time of the Sunday morning wreck in the Bronx. They said late Tuesday they had removed Bottalico's union, the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, as a participant in the investigation over a breach of confidentiality after he publicly discussed information related to it.
Two law enforcement officials said the engineer told police at the scene that his mind was wandering before he realized the train was in trouble and by then it was too late to do anything about it. One of the officials said Rockefeller described himself as being "in a daze" before the wreck.
The officials, who were briefed on the engineer's comments, weren't authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Questions about Rockefeller's role mounted rapidly after investigators disclosed on Monday that the Metro-North Railroad commuter train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 mph, or nearly three times the 30 mph speed limit.
Rockefeller, who was operating the train from the front car, ended up on the floor of his cab, then, "once he got up and stabilized himself, he tried to help other people," including a conductor or assistant conductor, Chartier said. Rockefeller, who had been a volunteer firefighter for 23 years, at first declined medical attention to try to help others, the lawyer said, but he later was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and was released.
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.
On the day of the crash, Rockefeller was on the second day of a five-day work week, reporting at 5:04 a.m. after a typical nine-hour shift the day before, Weener said.
"There's every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep," Weener said.