Driver in New York train crash suspended without pay, railroad says

Engineer William Rockefeller is loaded into an ambulance after the derailment Sunday. Eric Thayer / Reuters

The engineer who drove the New York commuter train that took a curve at 82 mph and flew off the tracks, killing four people, has been suspended without pay since the crash, a spokeswoman for the transit authority said Thursday.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, has told federal investigators that he was “in a daze situation” before the crash and hit the brakes too late, his lawyer told NBC News earlier this week.

The transit spokeswoman told NBC New York that Rockefeller was suspended immediately after the derailment, as soon as drug test was ordered, according to the policy of the railroad, Metro-North.

Rockefeller, 45, is a 15-year veteran of the railroad.

Besides the four killed, 63 people were injured when the train, making an early-morning run from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, ran off the rails at a sharp curve and came to rest inches from the Harlem River.

The lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, said that Rockefeller had slept from 8:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. and felt rested before he reported to work at 5 a.m. the day of the crash. He had worked an afternoon shift for years until two weeks earlier, transit sources have said.

Chartier also characterized the engineer’s state before the crash as “an autopilot kind of thing.” The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that fatigue has been “an insidious problem, particularly in the rail industry.”

Sleep experts have said that Rockefeller’s condition could have been similar to what is known as highway hypnosis, in which drivers zone out on long stretches of monotonous interstate drives.

Investigators said earlier this week that they had found no problems with the train’s brakes, the tracks or the signals. Authorities are awaiting drug and alcohol tests on Rockefeller, but a breath test at the scene was negative.