A train engineer is drawing intense scrutiny as investigators press their probe of Sunday's train wreck in New York City that left four people dead and more than 60 injured.
Local media were reporting Tuesday that investigators believe engineer William Rockefeller, 46, was distracted or possibly asleep when the train careened into a turn far too fast to remain on the tracks.
The New York Post, citing sources close to the investigation, reports that Rockefeller told investigators he had zoned out as the train came to a curve in the Bronx and was jolted back to reality when a warning whistle blew.
"He was just somehow inattentive,'' and as soon as he realized what was happening, he jammed on the brakes, one source told the Post.
DNAinfo.com - a city news website that pledges "original, aggressive, reporting on critical topics" - went a step further, saying its unidentified sources contend Rockefeller "all but admitted he was falling asleep" as the train, traveling at 82 mph, raced into a turn with a speed limit of 30 mph.
"As the train entered the curve, sources said, Rockefeller was jolted from his sleep and hit the brake, but not in time," the website reports.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway, asked if investigators were looking into the possibility that Rockefeller fell asleep, was using his cellphone or was otherwise distracted, told The New York Times only that "Part of our investigation, as in all investigations, is to look at human performance factors."
Earl Weener, with the NTSB, said at a press conference Monday that preliminary data from the train's recording devices showed its throttle went to idle just six seconds before the crash, and that maximum braking occurred only five seconds before the train derailed.
The speed zone approaching the curve in the Bronx is 70 mph, Weener said. He said it was not yet known why the train was traveling so fast or whether the accident was caused by equipment failure or human error. There did not appear to be any problem with the tracks or signals, he said.
Weener said investigators were interviewing Rockefeller, who has worked for the Metro-North Railroad for 20 years including 11 as an engineer, and three other crewmembers. Rockefeller's cellphone is being examined, along with low-quality security video from the Spuyten Duyvil station the train was approaching, Weener said.
The 75-mile trip started at 5:54 a.m ET in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., bound for Grand Central Station. The crash occurred at about 7:20 a.m. The train had made nine station stops before the crash, and investigators are "not aware of any prior problems or anomalies with the brakes," Weener added.
Rockefeller, who was being treated for injuries, has told officials the brakes did not respond when he applied them as the train approached the curve, the New York Daily News reports.
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said that Rockefeller was injured but was conscious and alert after the crash. Kelly said Rockefeller did provide a brief statement before being taken to a hospital. Asked about reports that Rockefeller said that he'd applied the brakes but that the train did not respond, Kelly said, "I'm not in a position to confirm or deny that at this point."
Anthony Bottalico, the executive director of the rail employees union, described Rockefeller as "totally traumatized" by the crash and said he was cooperating with the investigation.
"He is a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of," Bottalico said. "He's diligent and competent."