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Susan Smith-Harmon

Susan Smith-Harmon

Lawyer: NY Engineer had 'daze' before train crash

Wednesday, 04 December 2013 03:37 Published in National News

   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.

   HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A wintry storm pushing through the western half of the country is bringing bitterly cold temperatures that prompted safety warnings for residents in the Rockies and threatened crops as far south as California.

   The jet stream is much farther south than normal, allowing the cold air to push in from the Arctic and drop temperatures by 20 to 40 degrees below normal levels, AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines said Tuesday.

   Areas of Montana and the Dakotas were forecast to reach lows in the minus-20s, while parts of California could see the thermometer drop to the 20s. The icy arctic blast was expected to be followed by another one later in the week, creating an extended period of cold weather that hasn't been seen since the late 1990s, meteorologists said.

   Officials warned residents to protect themselves against frostbite if they are going to be outside for any length of time.

   "When it gets this cold, you don't need 30, 40 mile-per-hour winds to get that wind chill down to dangerous levels. All it takes is a little breeze," Kines said.

   The storm hit the northern Rockies on Monday and Tuesday, dumping up to 2 feet of snow in the mountains and in Yellowstone National Park.

   Snow and ice created hazardous driving conditions throughout the West, and were a factor in a four-vehicle crash in central Montana that killed 21-year-old Chelsea Stanfield of Great Falls. Authorities said Stanfield was driving too fast for the conditions.

   The weather also closed a stretch of Interstate 90 on Tuesday between Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyo. In eastern Oregon, authorities closed much of Interstate 84 as trucks jackknifed in the snow. Transportation authorities in Utah and Nevada reported dozens of crashes.

   In the Dakotas, cattle ranchers who lost thousands of animals in an October blizzard were bracing for the latest wintry weather, with wind chills of 40 degrees below zero expected by week's end.

   Cattle should be able to withstand the harsh conditions better than they did the Oct. 4 blizzard, said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

   "Cattle are a hardy species; they can endure a lot," she said. "With that October storm, they didn't have their winter hair coat yet. They've acquired some of that extra hair that will help insulate them better."

   The cold was expected to keep pushing south and bring near-record low temperatures to parts of California. Citrus famers in the Central Valley checked wind machines and ran water through their fields in anticipation of temperatures at or below freezing Tuesday night, followed by even colder weather on Saturday.

   However, farmers should not panic, said Bob Blakely of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association. Cold weather can be good for the crops, he said.

   "Trees and fruits need some of that cold weather to harden off and prepare for late December and January," he said.

   The system was pushing south, and Texans enjoying balmy 80-degree days should be seeing temperatures in the 40s by Thursday, Kines said.

   The cold air is expected to linger until next week then move east, where it will bring less-drastic temperature changes, he said.

Boeing incentive bill moves to full Senate

Wednesday, 04 December 2013 03:00 Published in Local News

   The Missouri Senate will take up debate Wednesday on a tax incentive bill aimed at luring Boeing's commercial airplane plant to St. Louis.  That after a Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday night that will offer up to $1.7 billion of incentives over two decades tor Boeing.  

   St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley led a delegation of officials testifying Tuesday evening before the Senate committee. They touted the thousands of jobs a new Boeing plant would bring to the area.

   Earlier Tuesday, Governor Jay Nixon released an economic analysis showing Missouri would take in more additional tax revenues than it would waive in incentives.  

   St. Louis area governments also would offer incentives. But local economic development officials said they weren't ready Tuesday to put a price tag on those incentives.

   Missouri is one of several states competing to assemble the Boeing 777X airplane.

 

 

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