NTSB: Metro-North engineer has sleep disorder - New York News

NTSB: Metro-North engineer has sleep disorder

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By JIM FITZGERALD | AP

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — The engineer driving a speeding commuter train that derailed last year, killing four people, had a sleep disorder that interrupted his rest dozens of times each night and said he felt strangely "dazed" right before the crash, according to federal documents released Monday.

Asked if he was clearheaded enough to realize he was entering a curve just before the Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx, engineer William Rockefeller told investigators "apparently not."

The train hit the curve, which has a 30 mph speed limit, at 82 mph. In addition to the four people killed, more than 70 were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board released medical reports, interview transcripts and other documents but said its analysis of the information and any determination of the cause would come later.

Rockefeller's medical exam after the accident uncovered "severe obstructive sleep apnea," apparently undiagnosed, the NTSB said. It said a sleep study had been ordered because Rockefeller "did not exactly recall events leading up to the accident."

The study found that while Rockefeller slept, he had about 65 "sleep arousals" per hour. Scientists say as few as five interruptions an hour can make someone chronically sleepy.

In his NTSB interview, two days after the accident, Rockefeller did not describe himself as sleepy. He said his run from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan was without incident — with brakes, signals and the speedometer working fine — until a strange feeling came over him.

"It was sort of like I was dazed, you know, looking straight ahead, almost like mesmerized," he said. He compared it to driving a car and staring at the taillights ahead.

"You get almost like that hypnotic feeling," he said.

The engineer said he couldn't be sure when the dazed feeling began, but he remembered seeing the Riverdale station, just before the Spuyten Duyvil station where the derailment occurred.

He said he was roused only when he sensed that "something wasn't right" with the train and instinctively shut it off or threw it into emergency braking.

He said he then felt the derailment.

"I was thrown around," he said. Then he shouted "Emergency, emergency," several times into the radio, only to realize that because the key was out of the ignition, the radio was off.

Rockefeller ended the interview by saying he didn't know how to describe his feelings about the crash.

"It was just eerie, dark, and I just want to say that my heart goes out to everybody that was involved," he said.

The NTSB noted that sleep apnea is not mentioned in Metro-North's medical guidelines.

Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan said the railroad was reviewing the documents. Rockefeller's lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The report said Rockefeller's blood and urine tests after the accident revealed small amounts of aspirin and an over-the-counter antihistamine that carries a warning that it could impair the ability to drive.

The report also notes that Rockefeller's work schedule had recently changed from late night to early morning shifts.

Apnea is more common in those who are overweight, and the medical report describes Rockefeller, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall, as obese. Records in the report indicate he was 204 pounds in 2008, 246 pounds in 2011 and 274 pounds in 2013 but down to 261 pounds after the accident.

The report says a sleep medicine specialist prescribed an apnea treatment known as CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, which uses a mask and hose to push a steady flow of air pressure into a person's airway during sleep.

AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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