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N.Y. train’s speed was more than twice the limit

Criminal inquiry parallels review by safety board

Cranes on Monday removed the last car from a train derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers the day before.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Cranes on Monday removed the last car from a train derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers the day before.

NEW YORK — The Metro-North Railroad train that hurtled off the rails on a sleepy holiday weekend morning was traveling more than 80 miles per hour as it approached one of the sharpest curves in the region’s rail system, federal investigators said on Monday. That’s nearly three times the speed permitted through the turn.

The throttle was still engaged — giving the engine power — until six seconds before the locomotive, in the rear of the train, came to a stop around 7:20 a.m. Sunday after careering toward the Harlem River, killing four people and injuring dozens more, north of Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, officials said.

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The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation, and a board member, Earl Weener, said the train’s sudden power shift came “very late in the game.” The board cautioned that it remained unclear if the speed was the result of human error or faulty equipment.

But the extraordinary speed — even a relative straightaway north of the crash site has a maximum limit of 70 miles per hour — shed new light on the deadliest New York City train derailment in more than two decades and heightened the focus on the engineer at the center of the investigation.

Asked if the safety board was looking into the possibility that the engineer, William Rockefeller, was using his cellphone or otherwise distracted, a spokesman for the board, Keith Holloway, said, “Part of our investigation, as in all investigations, is to look at human performance factors.”

Rockefeller’s cellphone was recovered as “part of our routine process,” Weener said, and the results of drug and alcohol tests conducted after the crash were not yet known. Rockefeller was treated at a hospital after the accident and released.

The authorities said that the train’s brakes appeared to have been operating effectively shortly before the crash. Senator Charles Schumer noted, “The train did make nine stops before coming to this curve. So clearly the brakes were working a short time before.”

He added he was told by the safety board that the tracks seem to have been in proper condition.

The safety board’s interview with Rockefeller, who lives in Germantown, N.Y., was cut short on Monday and is to continue this week, officials said.

Anthony Bottalico, the acting director of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, said the interview was postponed because of “the trauma of the whole thing and the lack of sleep” for Rockefeller.

Several law enforcement officials said detectives from the New York and Metropolitan Transportation Authority police departments, with help from the office of the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, were conducting an investigation parallel to the safety board’s inquiry.

This is being done to collect evidence that could be used if prosecutors determine a crime occurred, three officials said. The safety board is not a law enforcement agency and its role is limited to issuing findings and making recommendations.

Prosecutors from Johnson’s office were at the scene of the derailment, and two officials said the prosecutors had issued subpoenas for the engineer’s blood samples, for drug and alcohol testing, and for his cellphone.

Bottalico said that “when all is said and done here,” the authorities would find there was “no criminal intent.”

A senior official with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has said Rockefeller initially told workers that he “dumped the brakes,” an emergency maneuver, after he realized he was traveling too quickly toward the curve.

Weener said that six seconds before the rear locomotive came to a stop, “the throttle was reduced to idle.” The brakes were fully applied one second later. Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, likened the throttle reduction to putting a car in neutral.

A crucial question, officials said, was why the train was traveling so fast as to require an emergency maneuver.

For those close to Rockefeller, who rose from the ranks of Grand Central Terminal custodians to a six-figure job as an engineer, Sunday’s crash was particularly harrowing.

Friends described Rockefeller as a mechanically inclined tinkerer and a former volunteer firefighter. Michael McLendon, a friend and former boss, recalled his early days on the job at Grand Central in the 1990s.

“He started on midnights,” McLendon said. “That’s emptying garbage, mopping floors.”

After he took a job at Metro-North’s control center at the terminal, McLendon said, Rockefeller’s attention turned toward train engineering.

“His dream was to operate trains,” McLendon said.

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