MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican troops and federal police kept a nighttime watch on a rural field where thieves abandoned a stolen shipment of highly radioactive cobalt-60, while officials began planning the delicate task of recovering the dangerous material.
Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said late Wednesday that it could take at least two days to safely get the material into a secure container and transport it to a waste site.
"It's a very delicate operation," Eibenschutz said. "What's important is that the material has been located and the place is being watched to guarantee no one gets close."
The missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico.
The highly radioactive material had been removed from its container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box could be in grave danger of dying within days.
The cobalt-60 was left in a rural area about a kilometer (a half a mile) from Hueypoxtla, a farm town of about 4,000 people, but it posed no threat to the residents and there was no evacuation, Eibenschutz said.
"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz said.
Townspeople complained they hadn't been given any information about what had been found in the nearby field.
"We don't know anything," resident Jose Antonio Rosales told Milenio Television. "We don't know if it's good, if it's bad. The authorities haven't told us anything."
Federal police and military units on the scene threw up an armed cordon about 500 meters (yards) around the site.
Mardonio Jimenez, a physicist for the nuclear commission, said it was the first time cobalt-60 had been stolen and extracted from its container in Mexico. The only threat was to whoever opened the box and later discarded the pellets of high-intensity radioactive material inside, he said.
"The person or people who took this out are in very great risk of dying," Jimenez said, adding that the normal survival rate would be between one and three days.
He said there was no word so far of anyone reporting to area hospitals with radiation exposure. He said those who exposed themselves to the pellets could not contaminate others.
The cargo truck hauling the cobalt-60 was stolen from a gas station early Monday in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from where the material was recovered, Jimenez said. Authorities had put out an alert in six central states and the capital looking for it.
The material had been removed from obsolete radiation therapy equipment at a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana and was being transported to nuclear waste facility in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City.
Eibenschutz said there was nothing to indicate the thieves were after the cobalt or in any way intended for an act of terrorism, The thieves most likely wanted the white 2007 Volkswagen cargo vehicle with a moveable platform and crane , he said.
On average, a half dozen thefts of radioactive materials are reported in Mexico each year and none have proven to be aimed at the cargo itself, he said.
According to authorities, a truck marked "Transportes Ortiz" left Tijuana on Nov. 28 and was headed to the storage facility when the driver stopped to rest at a gas station in Tepojaco, in Hidalgo state north of Mexico City.
The driver told authorities he was sleeping in the truck when two men with a gun approached him. They made him get out, tied his hands and feet and left him in a vacant lot nearby.
Eibenschutz said the transport company did not follow proper procedures and should have had GPS and security with the truck.
"The driver also lacked common sense because he decided to park along a highway so he could sleep," he said.
The company that owns the truck couldn't immediately be located for comment. One Mexico City company called "Transportes Ortiz" said the truck was not theirs and they had nothing to do with the incident.
The NTSB and FAA are investigating a plane crash in Puerto Rico that killed a St. Louis native.
Monday night, 28 year old Steven Gullberg II and his co-pilot were killed when the cargo plane they were flying crashed along Puerto Rico's north coast. Authorities say the plane had been en route from the Dominican Republic when it descended rapidly over the mountains.
Gullberg was a Hazlewood Central High School graduate.
For the past three months Gullberg had worked for Fort Lauderdale based IBC Airways. Gullberg's family says he had expressed concerns about problems with the maintenance of the company's planes, even questioning their safety.
YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) — An engineer whose speeding commuter train ran off the rails along a curve, killing four people, experienced a hypnotic-like "daze" and nodded at the controls before suddenly realizing something was wrong and hitting the brakes, a lawyer said.
Attorney Jeffrey Chartier accompanied engineer William Rockefeller to his interview with National Transportation Safety Board investigators Tuesday and described the account Rockefeller gave. Chartier said the engineer experienced a nod or "a daze," almost like road fatigue or the phenomenon sometimes called highway hypnosis. He couldn't say how long it lasted.
What Rockefeller remembers is "operating the train, coming to a section where the track was still clear — then, all of a sudden, feeling something was wrong and hitting the brakes," Chartier said. "... He felt something was not right, and he hit the brakes."
He called Rockefeller "a guy with a stellar record who, I believe, did nothing wrong."
"You've got a good guy and an accident," he said. "... A terrible accident is what it is."
Rockefeller "basically nodded," said Anthony Bottalico, leader of the rail employees union, relating what he said the engineer told him.
"He had the equivalent of what we all have when we drive a car," Bottalico said. "That is, you sometimes have a momentary nod or whatever that might be."
NTSB member Earl Weener said it was too soon to say whether the accident was caused by human error. But he said investigators have found no problems with the train's brakes or rail signals.
Alcohol tests on the train's crew members were negative, and investigators were awaiting the results of drug tests, the NTSB said.
Federal investigators wouldn't comment on Rockefeller's level of alertness around the time of the Sunday morning wreck in the Bronx. They said late Tuesday they had removed Bottalico's union, the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, as a participant in the investigation over a breach of confidentiality after he publicly discussed information related to it.
Two law enforcement officials said the engineer told police at the scene that his mind was wandering before he realized the train was in trouble and by then it was too late to do anything about it. One of the officials said Rockefeller described himself as being "in a daze" before the wreck.
The officials, who were briefed on the engineer's comments, weren't authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Questions about Rockefeller's role mounted rapidly after investigators disclosed on Monday that the Metro-North Railroad commuter train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 mph, or nearly three times the 30 mph speed limit.
Rockefeller, 46, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10, Weener said. He lives in Germantown, 40 miles south of Albany.
On the day of the crash, Rockefeller was on the second day of a five-day work week, reporting at 5:04 a.m. after a typical nine-hour shift the day before, Weener said.
"There's every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep," he said.
Weener didn't address specifically what the engineer was doing in the hours before his shift started but said part of the investigation will be creating a 72-hour timeline of his activities.
Chartier said Rockefeller had gotten "a proper amount of sleep," having gone to bed at 8:30 the previous night to wake up at 3:30 a.m. for his shift. He said Rockefeller, before going to bed, had been spending time at home.
Rockefeller had begun running that route on Nov. 17, two weeks before the wreck. Bottalico said Rockefeller was familiar with the route and qualified to run it.
He said Rockefeller had switched just weeks earlier from the night shift to the day shift, "so he did have a change in his hours and his circadian rhythms with regard to sleep."
The New York Police Department is conducting its own investigation, with help from the Bronx district attorney's office, in the event the derailment becomes a criminal case.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday the engineer could be faulted for the train's speed if nothing else.
"Certainly, we want to make sure that that operator is disciplined in an appropriate way," he said. "There's such a gross deviation from the norm."
A former supervisor, Michael McLendon, who retired from the railroad about a year ago, called Rockefeller "a stellar employee."
McLendon said he was stunned when he heard about the crash, shortly after opening his mail to find a Christmas card from Rockefeller and his wife.
"I said, 'Well, I can't imagine Billy making a mistake,'" McLendon said. "Not intentionally, by any stretch of the imagination."
University of Dayton professor Steven Harrod, who studies transportation, said trains typically don't have a speed or cruise control but a power control, and once it's set a train can pick up speed on its own because of the terrain.
"Thus, if the engineer loses attention, the train can gain speed without intervention," Harrod said.
In case of an engineer becoming incapacitated, the train's front car was equipped with a dead man's pedal, which must be depressed or the train will automatically slow down.
Trains also can have alarms, sometimes called alerters, which sound if the operators' controls haven't been moved within a certain timeframe. If an engineer doesn't respond, often by pressing a button, brakes automatically operate. But the train that derailed didn't have such a system, a Metro-North spokeswoman said.
Congress has ordered commuter and freight railroads to install technology called positive train control, which uses electronics to monitor trains' positions and speed and stop derailments and other problems, by the end of 2015.
Crews are rebuilding the damaged track where Rockefeller's train crashed. Officials expect 98 percent of service to be restored to the affected line Wednesday, Cuomo said.