NEW YORK -- Investigators believe the driver of a Metro-North Railroad train wasn't fully alert moments before the train rounded a curve at almost three times the speed limit and jumped the tracks, killing four people and seriously injuring 11, said a person familiar with the probe.
The driver, William Rockefeller, 46, wasn't paying attention, based on statements he made to interviewers moments after the incident, said the person, who requested anonymity because details of the federal investigation aren't yet public. It's not known whether the driver was asleep, the person said.
The Dec. 1 crash caused the first passenger deaths ever for the commuter service when the train bound for New York's Grand Central Terminal derailed while traveling 82 miles per hour on a 30-mph (48 kilometer-per-hour) curve, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.
"That amount of speed is unjustifiable, period," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday during an event at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. "We want to be sure the operator is disciplined in an appropriate way. There's such a gross deviation from normalcy that other agencies may want to take a look at his behavior."
Cuomo, who oversees the state agency that runs Metro-North, said that might include criminal prosecution.
Just two years ago, Metro-North was singled out for international honors. Now it finds itself facing three federal safety investigations, a wave of retirements and new questions about why the locomotive operator speeded into a deadly curve.
"One of the reasons this is all so stunning is that this kind of thing doesn't historically happen on Metro-North," William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in interview. "It has been a very difficult year for the railroad."
The investigations add to the challenges the railroad faces, after being hailed two years ago as the first in the United States to win the Brunel Award for design and engineering. Last month, Metro-North was chided by the NTSB for a maintenance backlog. In May, all 700 passengers on two Metro-North trains survived a head-on collision in Connecticut, days before a worker died in a separate rail accident.
Rockefeller became a locomotive engineer about 15 years ago, after starting in the stationmaster's office as a clerk, said Tony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing Metro-North train operators.
Bottalico said Rockefeller switched from a shift that started in the afternoons to one that started in the early morning on Nov. 17. He declined to comment about Rockefeller's mental state moments before the crash.
Rockefeller was tested for drugs and alcohol, and investigators examined his mobile phone to see when it had been used, safety board member Earl Weener said Monday at a briefing in Yonkers.
"They'll also look at what the engineer was doing for the previous 72 hours to make sure he wasn't fatigued," said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director who's now a senior vice president with O'Neill & Associates in Washington. "The issue of distraction and fatigue is a top priority."
The straightaway leading to the curve had a 70 mph speed limit, which dropped to 30 mph on the 90-degree curve, investigators said.
About 120 passengers were on the express train when it derailed. The crash occurred just north of Manhattan, on the north bank of the Harlem River, where it joins the Hudson. Two women and two men died, and 63 were hurt.
The train's event-data recorders showed maximum braking five seconds before the speeding engine came to a halt, Weener said.
The brakes had worked properly at nine station stops after it left Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and before the crash, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the briefing.
"Clearly, the brakes were working a short time before the train came to this curve," Schumer said.
The accident could have been prevented through technology called positive-train control, which automatically slows and stops a train in the event an operator fails to do so, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington advocacy group.
"If the brake system was working, it absolutely is PTC- preventable," Capon said in an interview.
Railroads face a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to install the technology, according to a 2008 law passed after a commuter-rail crash in Los Angeles. The MTA's Manhattan-North and Long Island Railroad lines have each requested extensions until 2018, MTA spokeswoman Majorie Anders said. Railroads have complained about the cost and sought a delay.
Financing to install the devices would be available in legislation proposed Tuesday by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat who said he was a Cold Spring, N.Y., neighbor and friend of James Lovell, 58, a father of four who died in the crash.
Maloney's bill would allow commuter-rail systems to get low-cost infrastructure-improvement loans and guarantees for positive train-control technology. Human error is the cause of 40 percent of all rail accidents, Maloney said in a news release.
Workers placed the derailed train's battered locomotive and cars in upright position and returned them to the tracks, and towed them from the site to Metro-North facilities for inspection by NTSB investigators, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said Tuesday. Workers may now begin repairing several hundred feet of track, he said.
The railroad carries an average of 280,000 riders each weekday, second only to the Long Island Rail Road, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
As it enters its 30th anniversary, it finds itself beset by departures among its most senior staff, with many of its employees completing their third decade of service and qualifying for full retirement benefits, Henderson said.
"You lose a lot of experience and knowledge and some of the culture that they've worked to instill in their employees, and safety is a big part of that," Henderson said. "It's difficult to find people who can do the work."
Metro-North's chief engineer, Robert Puciloski, speaking at an NTSB hearing last month in Washington on the May derailment, said the commuter line had fallen behind on track maintenance as it lost experienced welders to retirement. Metro-North welders may not have appropriately fixed a cracked joint near where the May derailment occurred, he said.
It would be irresponsible to dismiss the three Metro-North events this year as a coincidence, said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research who studies the regional mass-transit systems.
The Bombardier Inc. railcars in the New York crash held up well, said Michael Weinman, who was an operating officer at Amtrak in the 1970s and is a managing director of PTSI Transportation, a consulting firm based in Rutherford, New Jersey. He characterized the aluminum Comet model as the "battleship" of railcars.
They make up the fleet of non-electrified Metro-North cars, he said. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak also use the same type of cars, which were built by Bombardier from 1982-2002. Weinman said he expects the cars from the crash will be returned to service.
Keane reported from Washington; Klopott from Albany, N.Y. Contributors: Peter S. Green, Esme E. Deprez and Annie Linskey in New York, Elise Young in Trenton and Michael B. Marois in Sacramento, Calif.