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TODAY   |  December 04, 2013

Train driver may have nodded off before derailment

The engineer at the controls of the train that derailed in the Bronx, N.Y., Sunday, killing four people and injuring 63, says that he may have briefly nodded off shortly before the accident occurred. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>> twist in the investigation of the deadly commuter train crash in new york. the engineer at the controls indicated to coworkers that he may have briefly nodded off just before the derailment. tom costello is at the accident scene again for us this morning. good morning to you, tom.

>> reporter: good morning. the ntsb has taken a rare step. it has removed the union as a party to this investigation because the union gave interviews to nbc news and other outlets in which it describes whether or not the engineer nodded off. the ntsb felt that went too far. but so far, there is no sign of a mechanical problem with the train. for the second time since the bronx crash ntsb investigators interviewed the engineer at the controls sunday. william rockefeller is a 10 year veteran. a fellow union member talked to him tuesday.

>> he was very distraught over the loss of life and injuries and damage.

>> reporter: he told police he zoned out just before the crash. his attorney describing it to nbc news as an auto pilot kind of thing. the union rep said whether he zoned out or nodded off it was just as the train was at full speed and fast approaching that dangerous curve.

>> that momentary lapse he was not able to catch in time and by the time he did and put the control or took the power off and then went to emergency, it was too late.

>> reporter: at 82 miles per hour the train entered the turn and then went flying off the tracks. as medics worked on the sidewalk, a photographer snapped this photo of rockefeller walking past the injured. he himself was later tweeted at a hospital for minor injuries. two weeks earlier he switched from working afternoons and evenings to working the 5:00 a.m . shift. now ntsb is looking at whether exhaustion or sleep deprivation was the cause of the crash.

>> was he fully conscious at all times? it's premature to say yes he was or wasn't.

>>> in illinois david teaches new engineers and says it's very common to fight off sleep on routine runs.

>> we're seeing the same thing day in and day out. night and day . it's very easy.

>> reporter: and engineers are supposed to memorize every turn, every signal, every speed sign on their routes. there is no steering. engineers can only control the speed and breaks and friends inexist rockefeller was always focused on the details.

>> community minded, caring, safety minded, concerned. he was just one of those people that you just want to be around.

>> importantly, there's both an ntsb and a police investigation into this. as to the cab itself, there's only one engineer in there at a time. now he is supposed to be standing on a dead man switch. if he were to have a medical emergency , the weight would shift off of that switch and the train would come to a stop. we don't know if he maintained his weight or if the switch was working on sunday.

>>> thank you very much.