12/03/2013 10:37 pm ET

William Rockefeller, Engineer Driving During Deadly New York Train Crash, May Have Nodded Off


NEW YORK -- Reports are not yet conclusive on what caused a speeding Metro-North train to derail early Sunday morning in the Bronx, killing four passengers and injuring more than 60. But what is certain is that the crash forever changed the lives of the train’s engineer and hundreds of its passengers.

The accident has also launched a conversation about the consequences of sleep deprivation and fatigue, since various reports claim that the Metro-North engineer, William Rockefeller Jr., was not fully at attention -- and possibly asleep -- in the moments before, or during, the accident.

The train was reportedly traveling 82 miles per hour when it crashed, more than twice the 30 mph speed limit of the curve where the derailment occurred, just north of Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. An unnamed law enforcement source told Newsday that Rockefeller may have zoned out in the fateful moments before the crash, waking up too late to stop the train from speeding off the tracks. Anthony Bottalico, executive director of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing Metro-North crew members, said that Rockefeller told him he "basically nodded [off]."

"Employees are required to have at least eight hours of rest or off time before a shift," Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan told The Huffington Post. "If an employee has worked a 12-hour shift at any point within the last 24 hours, they must take at least 10 hours of rest before reporting to another shift."

Metro-North's policies regarding sleep deprivation on the job are mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board, Rockefeller was well-rested and had not been drinking at the time of the accident. The engineer was injured but conscious after the crash, and was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center to be treated for injuries that remain undisclosed. He has been cooperating fully with investigators, DNAinfo New York reported.

For now, there is no concrete evidence that Rockefeller had been overworked or had not gotten enough sleep the night before the deadly crash, sources told DNAinfo New York. Rockefeller's work schedule and runs are currently being investigated to determine if he was overworked, and investigators are looking into when he last slept before Sunday's trip, sources told Newsday.

While the conversation around sleep deprivation in the transportation industry has never attained the prominence of those around driving while drunk or texting while driving, the hazards are well documented. One in four train operators say that fatigue affects their job performance at least once a week, according to a 2012 National Sleep Foundation poll.

Other industries have instituted regulations including blood tests, extra hours between shifts, sleep disorder screening and shift limitations to prevent sleep deprivation-related accidents from occurring. The Railroaders' Guide to Healthy Sleep, a resource provided by the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine, is also working to bring awareness to sleep deprivation issues in the industry and provide information and help for transportation workers.

Investigations into the deadly derailment are ongoing, but while some details about the circumstances of the crash are emerging, little is known about the engineer driving the train, whose life has also been irrevocably changed by the accident. Bottalico of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees told The Journal News that Rockefeller is "totally traumatized" by the tragedy.

Though Rockefeller has yet to speak with the media, it is known he was an experienced engineer with a"good reputation," as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference Monday. Rockefeller also has no documented history of work-related issues or infractions.

“He’s a sincere human being with an impeccable record, that I know of,” Bottalico added. “He’s diligent and competent.”

The 46-year-old resident of Germantown in upstate New York is a veteran employee of Metro-North Railroads. Rockefeller has worked with the company for the past 20 years, and has been employed in his current role as an engineer for the past 11 years.

Rockefeller grew up in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where his father owned a construction business, Rockefeller Builders. Rhinebeck Mayor James Reardon told The Journal News that he's known "Billy" since he was a child, and that he is a "conscientious and dedicated guy."

“[Rockefeller] is a great guy, humble and very caring," Reardon said. "My thoughts and prayers are with him.”

Rockefeller also serves as a volunteer rescue worker and fire fighter, according to his uncle, 49-year-old Jan Timothy Rockefeller, New York Daily News reported. The engineer's uncle told the Daily News that his nephew always put safety first.

“Everything he did, he did in a safe manner," the elder Rockefeller said. “Everything with him was safety.”



Signs You Need More Sleep