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Cuomo thinks Metro-North derailment must have been 'speed-related'

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metro north Credit: Workers upright and move a derailed Metro-North train car in the Bronx. (Charles Eckert)

As investigators examined the fatal Metro-North train wreck that the governor on Monday said may be "speed-related," members of the Bronx community where the crash took place announced plans for a memorial service.

Members of the Riverdale community will gather Monday at 6 p.m. at a site overlooking the Spuyten Duyvil train station to offer "prayers of healing" and "thanksgiving" to the families of victims, as well as to emergency responders who helped pull survivors from the wreckage Sunday morning.

The crash, which occurred at 7:20 a.m. on a sharp curve barely a hundred feet north of the station, claimed 67 victims, including four dead and 11 critically injured, the FDNY said.

Speaking Monday morning on NBC's "Today" show, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said investigators were looking at "three options that are on the table -- problem with the track, equipment problem or operator error," but said he believes speed will prove to be the biggest contributing factor.

"I'm not an expert in this field," Cuomo said. "Working with the experts over the past day, I think it is going to be speed-related."

Officials said there were more than 100 passengers aboard the seven-car train when it crashed, derailing several cars, north of the station on the Hudson Line in the Bronx. One of the derailed cars came to a stop just feet from the chilly waters of the Spuyten Duyvil, the cut between the Bronx and upper Manhattan connecting the Hudson River to the Harlem River.

Along that section of track trains are supposed to reduce speed to 30 mph, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Sunday. Outside that section, trains can travel as fast as 70 mph.

It was not immediately clear how fast the train was traveling when it derailed. That information is expected to be on the train's data recorder, which a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said was downloaded.

"Our mission is to understand not just what happened but why it happened, with the intent of preventing it from happening again," NTSB member Earl Weener said Sunday.

The head of the union representing the crew said the four employees are cooperating with investigators. Bottalico said the crew members will meet with the National Transportation Safety Board investigators later Monday.

He declined to speculate on a cause, including whether speed may have been a factor.

Bottalico said the engineer is traumatized, and that he is diligent and competent.

An assistant conductor in the front of the train suffered an eye injury and broken collarbone, Bottalico said, the other two crew members were banged up but are expected to be OK.

During his "Today" interview, Cuomo discussed potential investigative angles being looked at -- portions of that interview reported further on the show's website Monday.

"This was a tricky turn on the system, but it's a turn that's been here for decades and trains negotiate all day long," Cuomo said, adding: "It's not about the turn. I think it's going to turn out to be about the speed more than anything, and the operator's operation of the train at that time."

A source in law enforcement said the train operator, William Rockefeller, of Rhinebeck, told first responders he applied the brakes but they did not work.
Authorities have not confirmed that account.

Rockefeller told first responders the train had reached an excessive speed going into the turn when the derailment happened, the source said.

He tried to apply the brakes to no avail, so he tried to "dump" the brakes, which is similar to pulling a car's emergency brake to avoid a collision at the last second. He said that did not halt the train.

Russ Quimby, a rail safety consultant and former NTSB member, said train brakes are usually designed with a fail-safe so if they malfunction, the train will come to a stop.

On Sunday night, the MTA identified the four dead as Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh; James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose; and Ahn Kisook, 35, of Queens.

Five NYPD officers commuting to work were among those injured, sources said Sunday.

Pictures and video from the scene Sunday show the cars largely intact, though Cuomo said Monday that the lack of major visible damage was misleading.

"It was actually much worse than it looked," Cuomo said on "Today" with Matt Lauer. "It was a truly horrific situation. From the pictures you see the trains are tossed about. It looks like a child's train set that was just strewn about.

"As the cars were skidding across the ground, they were actually picking up a lot of debris," the governor said, adding: "A lot of the dirt and the stones and the tree limbs were going through the cars. It actually looked worse up close. It's your worst nightmare. People get on the train in the morning, they think they're going to have just another day, and then tragedy strikes."

Dozens of emergency vehicles were on scene Monday, with police blocking public access to roads near the site.

The MTA said that by 4:20 a.m. Monday it had righted and re-railed the Metro-North locomotive powering cars that jumped the tracks. All train cars involved had been righted by the afternoon. Just before 1:30 p.m. the lead car was uprighted and pulled by a crane toward the tracks.

In addition to speed, the condition of the track and mechanical equipment, the signal system, and maintenance and personnel records all will be examined, officials said.

Meanwhile, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, headed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, announced a memorial service to be held at 6 p.m. at the corner of Independence and Palisade avenues overlooking the station.

"Our community has been deeply pained by this horrific event," Weiss said in a statement released Monday.

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