Nightly News   |  December 03, 2013

Was train engineer fatigued or sleep-deprived?

So far, the NTSB has found no signs of a mechanical problem in the train derailment that killed four people and injured dozens. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> and paying tribute, an enormous outpouring for a man who gave his life .

>>> good evening, the investigation into the crash of a commuter train in new york city early sunday morning at a wildly high rate of speed appears to now be focusing on the alertness level of the engineer at the controls. at 82 miles an hour, the train was going way too fast for the turn, more than double the speed for those rails. the ntsb says there is no evidence of a mechanical problem thus far. today, the first lawsuits were filed in this derailment that killed four passengers and injured over 60 others. the outcome of this investigation could be an impact on public transportation . it is where we begin tonight with nbc's tom costello at the scene of the wreck, good evening.

>> reporter: hi, brian, we are told tonight it looks as if the engineer nodded off at the controls. the engineer tells police he believes he zoned out. the blood and alcohol tests are back, they're negative. meanwhile, ntsb is suggesting that the train's brakes and signals were all working properly. it was a massive response to new york's worst train accident in 20 years.

>> we have a major train wreck , five cars on their side.

>> reporter: today as the fire department released the recordings of sunday's engineer transmissions, the engineer, rockefeller , was described as distraught. he changed his shift with a new start of 5 a.m . moments after the accident he told police he zoned out. a former co-worker said rockefeller was always dedicated to safety.

>> i don't know how he is coping with the fact that he may have been responsible for the death of four people and 63 injured. i can't imagine that. because knowing the type of personality he is, that is going to weigh on him for the rest of his life.

>> reporter: engineer rockefeller was in the second day of a five-day work week, each day nine hours. the question for the ntsb , was he very sleepy, or sleep deprived ?

>> there is every indication he would have had time to restore sleep.

>> reporter: data recorders show that minutes after leaving the station the train had picked up tremendous speed. by the time it was supposed to slow from 70 to 30 miles an hour to make a dramatic turn, the train was moving at 82 miles an hour, at that point, the engine power went to idle, and the engineer slammed on the brakes but it was all too late. the train came to rest just inches from water. one spokesperson said there was no steering of the commuter train , the sole engineer on board only controls the brakes, and it poses a risk.

>> because of going over and over the route, you can be a little complacent to what you witness there, and could possibly zone out.

>> reporter: but there is no one else in the cab to help the engineer who is in trouble or asleep. there is a dead man's foot switch in the cab. and if you take your foot off it, it is essentially supposed to put the brakes on the train, we don't know if it was working, the ntsb will go back and look at the 72 hours before the crew boarded the train, how much sleep they got, what they were doing. it is expected to be back to normal tomorrow.

>> tom costello at the scene, thank you for your reporting.