YONKERS, N.Y. (AP) — A commuter train was rushing almost three times its speed limit around a curve when it derailed and killed four passengers, a federal investigator said Monday. But whether the wreck was the result of human error or mechanical trouble was still unclear, he said.
Asked why the train was going so fast, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said: "That's the question we need to answer."
The Metro-North Railroad train was going at 82 mph in a 30 mph zone around a sharp bend in the Bronx when it went off the track Sunday morning, according to preliminary information from the Metro-North train's two data recorders, Weener said. He said the throttle went to idle six seconds before the derailed train came to a complete stop — "very late in the game" for a train going that fast, Weener said — and the brakes were fully engaged five seconds before the train stopped.
Asked whether the tragedy was the result of human error or faulty brakes, Weener said: "The answer is, at this point in time, we can't tell."
The wreck came as Metro-North and other railroads have been trying extend a 2015 deadline for installing automatic-slowdown technology designed to prevent speed-related derailments and other catastrophic accidents. While Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday it was too soon to say whether the crash would have been prevented by such a system, known as "positive train control" or PTC, rail safety experts suggested it could have been.
Grady Cothen, a former safety official with the Federal Railroad Administration, said a PTC system would have prevented the crash if the brakes were working normally; they apparently had been during the train's nine previous stops, Weener said.
Steve Ditmeyer, another former FRA official who now teaches at Michigan State University, said the technology would have monitored the braking system and would not have allowed the train to exceed speed limits. It takes about a mile for a train going 70 mph to stop, he said.
"A properly installed PTC system would have prevented this train from crashing," he said. "If the engineer would not have taken control of slowing the train down, the PTC system would have," Ditmeyer said.
Weener would not disclose what the engineer operating the train had told investigators, and he said results of drug and alcohol tests of the engineer weren't yet available. Weener said investigators were examining the engineer's cellphone — apparently to determine whether he was distracted.
Metro-North's parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend the PTC deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the technology, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor locomotives' position and speed and stop trains from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.
"This incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures, like that one," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, which is also served by Metro-North. "And speaking for myself, I'd be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time."
Margie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North's parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that the agency began planning for a PTC system as soon as the law was put into effect. The MTA in September awarded a $210 million contract for designing and installing it on Metro-North.
"It's not a simple, off-the-shelf solution," she said.
The engineer, William Rockefeller, was injured and "is totally traumatized by everything that has happened," said Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the rail employees union. He said Rockefeller, 46, was cooperating fully with investigators.
"He's a sincere human being with an impeccable record that I know of. He's diligent and competent," Bottalico said. Rockefeller has been an engineer for about 11 years and a Metro-North employee for about 20, he said.
While the train's seven cars and locomotive were gradually returned to their tracks Monday, the 26,000 weekday riders on the railroad's affected Hudson Line faced a complicated commute.
Many used shuttle buses and cars to get to work. But no major delays were reported during the early rush hour.
On Sunday, the train was about half full, with about 150 people aboard, when it ran off the rails around 7:20 a.m. while rounding a bend where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet. The lead car landed inches from the water. In addition to the four people killed, more than 60 were injured.
Many victims had been released from hospitals by Monday afternoon.
Seven were still in an intensive-care unit at St. Barnabas Hospital, some with spinal injuries, emergency department director Dr. David Listman said. And two patients were reported in critical condition at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
The injured included five police officers who were heading to work, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a 14-year-old boy who was taking a weekend ride with his father on the same train the youngster usually takes to school.
The train's assistant conductor, Maria Herbert, suffered an eye injury and a broken collarbone, Bottalico said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on NBC's "Today" show that he thinks speed will turn out to be a factor in a crash he called "your worst nightmare."
The MTA identified the dead as Donna L. Smith, 54, of Newburgh; James G. Lovell, 58, of Cold Spring; James M. Ferrari, 59, of Montrose; and Kisook Ahn, 35, of Queens. Three of the dead were found outside the train; one was inside.
Lovell, an audio technician who had worked the "Today" show and other NBC programs, was traveling to Manhattan to work on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, longtime friend Janet Barton said. The tree-lighting ceremony is Wednesday night.
"He always had a smile on his face and was quick to share a friendly greeting," ''Today" executive producer Don Nash said in a message to staffers.
The NTSB has been urging railroads for decades to install Positive Train Control technology. Congress in 2008 required dozens of railroads, including Metro-North, to do so by 2015.
The MTA awarded $428 million in contracts in September to develop the system for Metro-North and its sister Long Island Rail Road. But the MTA has asked for an extension on the deadline to 2018, saying it faces technological and other hurdles in installing such a system across more than 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track.
The derailment came amid a troubled year for Metro-North, and marked the first time in the railroad's 31-year history that a passenger was killed in an accident.
In May, a train derailed in Bridgeport, Conn., and was struck by a train coming in the opposite direction, injuring 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor. In July, a freight train full of garbage derailed near the site of Sunday's wreck.
Eltman reported from Mineola, N.Y. Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong, Verena Dobnik, Deepti Hajela, Ula Ilnytzky, Colleen Long, Jake Pearson and Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.