December 4, 2013

Union official: Train engineer ‘nodded’ before fatal N.Y. crash

By Jim Fitzgerald and Tom Hays
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

In this photo taken on Dec. 1, Metro North Railroad engineer William Rockefeller is wheeled on a stretcher away from the area where the commuter train he was operating derailed in the Bronx borough of New York.

The Associated Press

He added: "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."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday the engineer could be faulted for the train's speed if nothing else.

"Certainly, we want to make sure that that operator is disciplined in an appropriate way. There's such a gross deviation from the norm," he said.

Steven Harrod, a University of Dayton professor who studies transportation, said that trains typically don't have a speed or cruise control but a power control, and once it's set a train can pick up speed on its own because of the terrain.

"Thus, if the engineer loses attention, the train can gain speed without intervention," Harrod said. "The power control could have been set" as the train left a station, "and then forgotten by the engineer."

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.

Trains also can have alarms, sometimes called alerters, which sound if the operators' controls haven't been moved within a certain timeframe. If an engineer doesn't respond, often by pressing a button, brakes automatically operate. But the Metro-North train that derailed didn't have such a system, according to Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North's parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Regardless, "neither of those two methodologies is truly a fail-safe approach," said Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration safety official. Congress has ordered commuter and freight railroads to install technology called positive train control — which uses electronics to monitor trains' positions and speed and stop derailments and other problems — by the end of 2015.

Rockefeller, 46 and married with no children, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10, according to Weener. Rockefeller lives in a well-kept house on a modest rural road in Germantown, N.Y., about 40 miles south of Albany.

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."

Rockefeller's work routine had recently changed. He had begun running that route on Nov. 17, two weeks before the wreck, Anders said.

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

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."

Meanwhile, crews were rebuilding the damaged track. Officials expect 98 percent of service to be restored to the affected line Wednesday, Cuomo said.

 

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