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Derailed Metro-North train was going 82 MPH around curve, investigators find

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

The Metro-North train that derailed in the Bronx was going more than 80 mph when it was supposed to slow down drastically for a sharp curve, an NTSB investigator said Monday.

“The preliminary information from the event recorders shows that the train was traveling at approximately 82 mph as it went into a 30 miles an hour curve,” NTSB board member Earl Weener said.

When asked why the train was going faster than the posted limit of 70 mph before the curve, the chief investigator said, “That’s the question we need to answer.”

“At this point, we are not aware of any problems or anomalies with the brakes,” Weener told reporters in a short briefing about the train wreck that killed four passengers and injured dozens.

Two minutes before the crash, the train was going 60 mph and sped up to 82, Weener told CNN shortly after the NTSB briefing.

The train made nine stops before the crash, and Weener said black box data showed no issues with the brakes during that period.

Weener would not say if the derailment was caused by mechanical failure or operator error, adding that much of the black box data still had to be analyzed.
“At this point in time we can’t tell,” Weener said.

Data from the black boxes recovered from the train revealed the throttle went to idle about six seconds before the train derailed and the brake pressure fell to zero five seconds before the crash.

That was “very late in the game” for a train to slow down for the curve, a 30-mph zone, Weener said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Metro-North engineers, like those on the Long Island Rail Road, are required to test a train’s brake system before beginning a run.

A source in law enforcement said the engineer, William Rockefeller of Rhinebeck, told first responders he had applied the brakes but they did not work.

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.

David Rangel, founder of the Modoc Railroad Academy in Marion, Ill., said a train’s brake air pressure suddenly dropping to zero would indicate that the engineer applied the emergency brakes — or “dumped” the brakes — once it was already too late. The momentum of the train would have caused it to continue sliding and skidding at a high speed through the curve.

“If he dumps the brakes, that tells me it’s an emergency situation, a crisis situation,” Rangel said. “Any modulation of the brakes or tapping of the brakes is not going to be enough.”

As usual in such investigations, the engineer’s cellphone has been recovered, Weener said.

Interviews with the engineer have started but not yet been finished, Weener said at the briefing. The engineer operated the entire train from the first car, which has lines running back to the locomotive, the last car, which pushed the train, Weener said.

The NTSB board member also told CNN that the crash is a small part of surveillance video from a nearby bridge provided by the MTA and needs to be enhanced. He said it showed “flashes followed by a cloud of dust” as the train hit the electrified, third rail.

Investigators have examined the rails and expect to finish testing of the track signal system Monday night, he said.

Meanwhile, the head of the union representing the crew in the fatal train wreck said Monday the four employees are cooperating with investigators, and that the engineer was traumatized by the crash.

Union boss Anthony Bottalico said the crew members will meet with National Transportation Safety Board investigators later Monday.

In an interview on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said investigators were examining the condition of the track and equipment, and looking at whether operator error was a factor.

Cuomo said the engineer of the train was experienced, that “he had operated this route many times before. He could have just made a mistake . . . and come into the turn too fast.”

Bottalico said the engineer is diligent and competent, and he was traumatized by the accident. The engineer was treated and released Sunday from New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center.

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

As investigators examined the accident, members of the Bronx community where the crash took place announced plans for a memorial service.

Members of the Riverdale community gathered Monday night 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.

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