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Report: Engineer in fatal train crash has severe sleep apnea

The engineer of a Metro-North train that crashed last December in the Bronx, NY, killing four people, admits he felt “dazed” on the day of the wreck. Given information released on his medical evaluation after the crash, there’s no wonder why he felt that way. 

Documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show engineer William Rockefeller had severe obstructive sleep apnea.

A post-crash sleep evaluation showed Rockefeller experienced 52.5 to 67.5 episodes per hour of airflow disruption for at least 10 seconds while sleeping. More than 30 episodes per hour is considered severe. Normal is fewer than five per hour.

On top of that, Rockefeller was suffering from a respiratory ailment on the day of the crash and had traces of the antihistamine chlorpheniramine in his system. The antihistamine comes with a warning that it can cause drowsiness and that it can impair mental ability required for potentially dangerous tasks such as driving.

In a transcript of an interview with Rockefeller released by the NTSB, the engineer says he felt “mesmerized” on the morning of the crash.

His lawyer says Rockefeller had no idea about his condition until after his post-crash diagnosis. The lawyer also says his condition was “exacerbated by the change in shifts” Rockefeller had two weeks earlier.

Shift rotation is a factor known to contribute to worker fatigue.

The NTSB has previously called on the Federal Railroad Administration to address fatigue and sleep apnea among railroad workers. Among the safety agency’s recommendations: Railroads should screen employees in safety-sensitive jobs for sleep apnea.

An executive board member with the union that represents Metro-North workers told the Poughkeepsie Journal there isn’t enough awareness about sleep apnea in the transportation industry.

It’s estimated 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with 80% of moderate and severe cases undiagnosed.

The NTSB will issue a final report on the crash which will include likely causes.

The crash also injured 70 others. The derailment left the seven-car train strewn across the tracks and down a hill.

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