The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that William Rockefeller, the Metro North Engineer at the helm of the train which derailed in Spuyten Duyvil on December 1, 2013, killing 4 and injuring more than 70, had “severe obstructive sleep apnea.” Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder which causes breath pauses during sleep, disrupting sleep and causing other health issues. The NTSB noted that the condition may have been made more severe by a change in Rockefeller’s schedule two weeks before the tragedy from nights to an early morning run.
Approximately 18 million people have sleep apnea, which can cause long term and in this instance dangerous drowsiness. Those with sleep apnea often have narrowed airways which can cause them to have difficulty breathing while they sleep. They often have snoring problems and can wake up gasping. Mr. Rockefeller was allegedly never tested for any sleep disorder prior to the derailment, and the NTSB reported that testing performed since the derailment showed that his sleep was disrupted as many as 65 times per hour.
It seems highly unlikely that Rockefeller was completely unaware of a significant condition such as sleep apnea that could interfere with his sleep on an every minute basis. Further, there is another safety issue for Metro North to respond to, namely, why are its employees who are placed in a position of safely transporting its ridership not medically tested on a regular basis? And if Metro-North did conduct regularly physicals of its engineers and other employees who have the responsibility of safety to the public, how come the railroad was unaware of Mr. Rockefeller’s “severe sleep apnea”?
The Journal News reported that the NTSB previously requested that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) deal with operator fatigue by medically screening employees in “safety sensitive” jobs for various sleep disorders, including chronic sleep apnea. Mr. Rockefeller reportedly told NTSB investigators that he was “dazed…looking straight ahead, almost like mesmerized…[that he had] a hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead.”
The December 1 derailment occurred in the early morning that Sunday when the Grand Central bound train hurtled into a curve at over 80 miles per hour where the speed limit is 30 mph. Mr. Rockefeller claims that he only woke up as the train was turning on its side.
In addition to the sleep apnea, a blood test revealed that Rockefeller had taken a cold medication known as Chlorpheniramine on the date of the derailment. Chlorpheniramine is an antihistamine used to relieve symptoms of allergies and the common cold. The drug comes with a warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it could “impair mental and/or physical ability required for the performance of potentially hazardous tasks” like driving and operating heavy machinery.” Of course, clearly Mr. Rockefeller should not have been operating heavy machinery such as a several car passenger train on a sedating medication, in conjunction with a “severe” sleep disorder.
The Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union that represents Metro-North employees, stated through a spokesman that operators are required to take an annual physical and report medications they are taking and medical conditions they suffer from. Further investigation will determine exactly what Metro-North knew of Rockefeller’s medical condition, and if nothing, how that is even possible.
Mr. Rockefeller is on suspension without pay pending a hearing with Metro-North officials.
Metro North has acknowledged that safety was not a big enough priority previous to December 1, 2013. In fact, the new president of Metro North, Joseph Giulietti, admitted on March 4, 2014 that “safety was not our top priority, it must be, and it will be.” That remains to be seen. Measures taken since the derailment such as train cab cameras, lower speed limits in dangerous zones, and track signal improvements should have been implemented long ago.