The engineer driving the Metro-North train that derailed in December, killing four people and injuring more than 70, has a sleep disorder and was taking cold medication that may cause drowsiness, according to documents released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board. In an interview two days after the accident, William Rockefeller told investigators that he felt fine that day, but experienced something like highway hypnosis as he stared straight ahead at the tracks. “I came up with that hypnotized feeling, dazed, that’s what I was in,” he said. “The only thing that shook me out of it was the feeling of the train. Something wasn’t right with it.” He activated the emergency brake, but it was too late. The train derailed as it headed around a sharp curve at 82 miles per hour, nearly three times the speed limit.
A sleep specialist who examined Rockefeller after the crash diagnosed him with “severe obstructive sleep apnea.” He had recently switched from late-night to early-morning shifts, and the specialist also noted that “Being a shift worker might have contributed to the accident.” While Rockefeller denied taking any medication, DNAinfo reports that toxicology tests found a small amount of chlorpheniramine in his system. The over-the-counter medication carries a warning that it “may impair mental and/or physical ability required for the performance of potentially hazardous tasks (e.g., driving, operating heavy machinery).”
The NTSB’s investigation is expected to continue for several months, but so far tests on the train’s brakes, signal system, and other mechanical equipment have turned up nothing unusual.