The engineer at the controls of the Metro-North train that derailed as it sped around a sharp curve in the Bronx, killing four people, experienced a hypnotic-like "daze" before realizing something was wrong and hitting the brakes, an attorney said.
Attorney Jeffrey Chartier accompanied engineer William Rockefeller to his interview with National Transportation Safety Board investigators Tuesday 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."
Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, told reporters Tuesday that the engineer "basically nodded" just before the crash.
"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."
The NTSB said at a Tuesday briefing that authorities could not yet describe the engineer's condition just 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.
"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.
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.
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. Chartier said Rockefeller had gone to bed about 8:30 p.m. the night before, and got up about six hours later for his shift.
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.
"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."
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