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Metro-North Engineer Took Cold Meds Before Crash, NTSB Says

 Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller is wheeled away the scene of a train derailment that killed four people and injured dozens of others.
Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller is wheeled away the scene of a train derailment that killed four people and injured dozens of others.
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Charles Eckert/Polaris

THE BRONX — The Metro-North engineer who suffered from sleep apnea and dozed off just before the fatal crash last December had taken over-the-counter cold medication that causes drowsiness before the trip and felt “hypnotized” by the tracks just before derailing, federal investigators found.

A toxicology test done on Metro-North Engineer William Rockefeller after the crash found that Rockefeller had a small amount of “sedating antihistamine” chlorpheniramine in his blood, according to a report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The over-the-counter drug carries a warning that chlorpheniramine “may impair mental and/or physical ability required for the performance of potentially hazardous tasks (e.g., driving, operating heavy machinery),” the report added.

Days after the Dec. 1 crash, which killed four people and injured dozens more, Rockefeller went to the doctor, where he said he had a runny nose for the past five days, the report found.

He denied ever taking cold medication, according to the report, and was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection.

In addition, Rockefeller told investigators after the crash that he had fallen into a state similar to highway hypnosis during the accident.

“I don't know if anybody's ever experienced like driving a long period of time in a car and staring at the taillights in front of them, and you get almost like that hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead,” Rockefeller told investigators on Dec. 3, according to NTSB transcripts. "I just want to say I was just staring straight ahead and I was — as the sergeant and I came up with that hypnotized feeling, dazed, that's what I was in."

The train was traveling 82 miles per hour going into a sharp turn at Spuyten Duyvil, derailing eight cars, officials said.

On Dec. 22, Rockefeller underwent a sleep evaluation and was found to have “high sleep fragmentation with 64.7 sleep arousals per sleep hour” due to “severe obstructive sleep apnea,” according to the medical report.

Rockefeller had gotten up around 3:30 a.m. the morning of crash, after getting about seven hours of interrupted sleep, according to sources and the report.

The train pulled out of Poughkeepsie on time at about 5:45 a.m.

Rockefeller described going into the daze just minutes before the deadly crash, before being suddenly jolted awake as the train careened off the tracks about 7:19 a.m.

“The only thing that shook me out of it was the feeling of the train,” Rockefeller said. “Something wasn't right with it, something, and that's when I believe [instinctively] I had thrown it into emergency.”