Focus in Probe of Deadly Metro-North Derailment Turns to Engineer

Rockland commuters return to Hudson Line trains


derailment1TARRYTOWN – Rockland commuters returned to their Hudson Line trains Wednesday morning, but without definitive answers from investigators on what caused Sunday’s tragic Metro-North passenger train derailment that killed four and injured more than 60 others.

While railroad crews rebuilt a 800-foot section of track near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx to restore service on the line, the focus of the probe into the disaster increasingly moved toward William Rockefeller, the engineer of the doomed train.

Representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board say they have spoken with the engineer, but their interviews with him have not been completed and an extensive review of the 7:20 a.m. Sunday derailment continues. However, initial reports that Rockefeller told first-responders the morning of the crash that he was in a “daze” were amplified on Tuesday by a railroad union official who said Rockefeller “nodded” just prior to the crash.

The NTSB reports Rockefeller’s train was speeding at 82 mph as it reached a 30 mph section of track on a sharp curve at Spuyten Duyvil.  All seven cars of the train derailed, sending passengers and crew flying in the train and filling some of the cars with stones and debris as they dragged sideways on the terrain along the banks of the Harlem River.

NTSB member Earl Weener said the agency’s investigation has revealed some key facts, including:

–       The brakes on the Metro-North train were properly inspected and checked at the start of its run on Sunday. And, the brakes were working properly at stops prior to reaching the site of the crash.

–       Alcohol tests on the train’s crew, including Rockefeller, were negative. Results of drug tests are still pending.

–       On Sunday, Rockefeller showed up on time for his shift at 5:04 a.m., and it was the second day of his workweek – having worked a usual nine-hour shift the day before. In theory, he should have been well rested for his shift. But the investigation is looking into his life in the 72 hours before he showed up for work on Sunday.

–       There was no sign of problems with the railroad signal system on the Hudson Line.

Rockefeller, 46, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10 years. He and his wife liver in Germantown, NY, where he is a volunteer firefighter. Railroad officials said Rockefeller was familiar with the Hudson Line, although he had recently changed from working the afternoon shift to working mornings.

The crash sparked a massive effort by New York City first-responders to rescue passengers and to treat victims. Passengers James Lovell, 58, Kisook Ahn, 35, Donna Smith, 54, and James Ferrari, 59, were killed and 11 others were critically injured.

The wreckage halted Hudson Line service between Westchester and Grand Central Terminal on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, forcing commuters to change their routines. Many used Metro-North’s Harlem Line, with Westchester County providing free parking near the Valhalla station.

Although commuters had extended trips and faced crowded Harlem Line trains, Rockland commuter Kenny Flynn of New City said he did not have any problem driving to White Plains to catch the train to Manhattan there instead of Tarrytown.

Richard Kavesh of Nyack drives to work at a school in the Bronx.

“The Saw Mill River Parkway going into the Bronx has been a little slower the past two days, but not by much,” said Kavesh, former mayor of Nyack. “The most direct way this mess has affected me is that my high school’s football field actually borders those railroad tracks on the Spuyten Duyvil. I saw the train being removed from our school’s office window yesterday.”

To help commuters, Rockland County had extra service on its Tappan ZEExpress bus routes to the Harlem Line station in White Plains.

As the extent of the damage from the derailment and the complexity of the crash investigation became apparent, railroad officials feared Hudson Line service might not be restored until late in the week. But on Tuesday night, Metro-North announced service would begin again on Wednesday morning – although some trains would be combined.

“The extraordinary work of Metro-North forces has enabled a rapid resumption of service and I commend them,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast, noting 98 percent of Hudson Line service was restored.

He said crews worked all night Monday to remove debris and ballast and begin laying new ties. With approval of the National Transportation Safety Board, rail cars from the crash were cleared from the tracks by 6 p.m. on Monday and moved to Highbridge Yard in the Bronx and Croton-Harmon Yard in Westchester, where they have been impounded by the NTSB for investigation.

About 900 gallons of diesel fuel was siphoned from the derailed Metro-North locomotive before it was removed from the accident scene and workers used a specialized equipment to remove any remaining fuel that spilled during the accident. No fuel reached either the Harlem or Hudson rivers, according to the railroad.

The section of the Hudson Line involved in the crash has three tracks. One track has been re-opened and work continues on repairs to the other two tracks.

As the NTSB investigates the accident, New York City police and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office say they are conducting their own investigation into the derailment. In court, the first notice came on Tuesday from an injured passenger who intends to file a lawsuit over the crash.

In the hours immediately after the crash, the public focus on the derailment was on the section of track at Spuyten Duyvil itself. In July a freight train hauling New York City trash derailed near the same location and disrupted Hudson Line passenger service. However, NTSB and Metro-North officials say there does not appear to be any link between the derailments.