NEW YORK — The Metro-North commuter train that derailed in the Bronx — killing four people and injuring dozens — was traveling at a "harrowing" 82 mph as it hit a curve where the limit was 30 mph, officials said Monday.
The throttle was engaged until six seconds before the locomotive came to a stop on its side, and the brakes were fully applied only five seconds before, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said.
That is "very late in the game," Weener said.
He said it was unclear if the engineer, a 20-year veteran, hit the brakes and they failed, or he simply tried to slow down or stop too late.
“The question is: Was this human error or faulty equipment? And the answer is at this point in time we can’t tell," Weener said.
But he noted that even before the train approached the bend and was supposed slow down, it had already blown a higher speed limit of 70 mph.
"When I heard about the speed, I gulped. It kind of takes your breath away," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who noted that any conclusions about the cause of the excessive speed would be "premature."
"There’s one obvious point here, which is that the train did make nine stops before coming to this curve," Schumer added. "So clearly the brakes were working a short time before it came to this curve."
"It's beyond frightening. It's harrowing," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said a series of mishaps had undermined public confidence in Metro-North.
The speed and equipment data came from an examination of two black-box recorders recovered from the train after it jumped the tracks near the historic Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx at 7:22 a.m. ET on Sunday.
Investigators are also talking to engineer William Rockefeller, who sources said told first responders at the scene that he hit the brakes as the train approached the turn.
They are inspecting his cellphone and waiting for the results of drug and alcohol tests. A surveillance video of the crash is being enhanced, officials said.
Anthony Bottalico, the head of the train employees union, said the engineer has an "impeccable" job record, is fully cooperating and will be interviewed in depth on Wednesday.
"He's very traumatized, as some of the other crew members are," Bottalico said. "Distraught over the loss of life."
Asked about the NTSB's findings and whether they suggested Rockefeller was at fault, the union chief said, "I would have to wait until I hear what Billy has to say Wednesday before I could comment."
The NTSB said it was too early to tell if safety enhancements — such as a Positive Train Control system that uses computers and satellites to override engineers and prevent accidents — would have prevented the derailment.
The configuration of the train — with the engineer in the front cab and the locomotive pushing it along the tracks from the rear — is considered as safe as one that is pulled by the engine from the front, Schumer said.
"It's been done countless times on this curve with no incident," he said.
A CSX freight train hauling trash on the same line derailed near the same spot in July, but no one was injured. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo told TODAY that the sharp turn couldn't be the primary cause.
"There has to be another factor. ... It can't just be the curve," he said.
Passenger Dennis O'Neil told NBC New York he believed the train was going too fast.
"It was coming towards Spuyten Duyvil and you could feel it starting to lean and it was like, 'hey, what's going on,'" he said. "And then it hit the curb real hard and flopped over and slid down the hill. A couple people were hurt very badly right in front of me."
The derailment tossed passengers around like rag dolls, and at least 63 people were injured; at least three were in critical condition on Monday.
Many of the injured use Metro-North to get to work and will have to overcome psychological trauma to use the railway again, an emergency room doctor predicted
"A 14-year-old who was traveling with his father, who was also injured, takes Metro-North to go to school in the Bronx," said Dr. David Listman of St. Barnabas Hospital. "From his perspective, how he is going to get back on a Metro-North train to come to school every day?"
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority identified the four passengers who were killed as Jim Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring, N.Y.; James Ferrari, 59, of Montrose, N.Y.; Donna Smith, 54, of Newburgh, N.Y.; and Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens.
Lovell, a father of four, was an audio technician who frequently worked on TODAY and other NBC programs.
One of the victims was found in the first car, one was found outside that car, another was found near the second and third cars, and the fourth was found outside the fourth car.
The accident — which could suspend service on the Hudson Line between Tarrytown and Grand Central Terminal for a week or more — could have been even deadlier if it had happened on a weekday. The train, the 5:54 a.m. out of Poughkeepsie, was half full with about 150 passengers.
Of those injured, at least 19 remained in the hospital. At St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, where nine were still being treated on Monday, officials said one was in critical condition on Monday morning with a spinal cord injury. New York Presbyterian had seven patients, two of them critical. And there were two more patients at Jacobi Medical Center.
Sources said five off-duty New York officers suffered relatively minor injuries.
First published December 2 2013, 1:24 PM