- Created on 03 December 2013
Engineer was 'in a daze' before crash
(CNN) -- Results from alcohol breath tests for the train engineer of the New York commuter train that derailed Sunday morning were negative, and both the brake and signal systems in the deadly Metro-North accident appeared to be working, National Transportation Safety Board representatives said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, while two law enforcement sources told CNN that engineer William Rockefeller reported being in a "daze" before the crash.
In a brief conversation with investigators, Rockefeller said that moments before the derailment of the Metro-North Hudson Line train in the Bronx he was "going along and I'm in a daze. I don't know what happened," according to a law enforcement official familiar with that conversation.
Asked by investigators what he was thinking when he said he was dazed, the engineer said he couldn't say. Rockefeller spoke to Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York Police detectives at the crash site before he was taken to the hospital Sunday.
NTSB member Earl Weener told a news conference that Rockefeller would have had a chance to get the necessary sleep prior to his 5 a.m. shift the day of Sunday's accident, which killed four people and injured 67 others.
Weener also reported that while breath tests for Rockefeller were negative, other toxicology results have not yet come back.
Weener told reporters that the train was equipped with a "dead man's pedal," designed to stop the train if the engineer become incapacitated. But it was unclear whether that emergency system was activated.
"We don't know what that sequence was at this point," Weener said. "It's too early to comment on that. But yes, there was a dead man's pedal."
The locomotive and all seven coaches jumped the tracks while barreling into a curve at 82 mph, nearly three times the 30 mph-limit for the curve, according to the NTSB.
Fatigue is a factor being investigated, according to a separate New York law enforcement source. But Rockefeller also told investigators on site that the brakes had failed, as CNN reported previously. Speaking at a news conference on Monday, officials noted the train had been able to stop nine times at stations ahead of the crash.
Steven Harrod, a University of Dayton professor and expert on railway operations, said the early hour of the derailment, along with the decreased rail traffic on the post-Thanksgiving weekend, also could have played a role in Rockefeller's "daze."
Harrod called it a "twilight" of inattention or distraction common in transport crews on late-night and early-morning shifts.
"If he was dead, dead asleep, his hands would have come off the controls and ... some of the 'dead man' stuff would have come into play," said Harrod, referring to "dead man" mechanisms that automatically stop trains when the engineer is incapacitated. "But if it was kind of that twilight where you're just there and still kind of gently holding onto to things but not quite really aware, which in my mind is still sleeping. That's still sleeping."
In the culture of railroad workers, Harrod said, admitting to falling asleep at the controls was almost as bad as admitting to being drunk or on drugs.
"It's very realistic that he, in fact, really did fall asleep," he said. "Falling asleep at the controls of a locomotive is a horrible evil. You're not supposed to do that. He really doesn't want to come out and say, 'I fell asleep.' It's emotionally embarrassing. It's not just a rules violation. There's a psychological component. If you come out and say, 'I fell asleep,' it's just purely beyond embarrassing. It's a violation of the sacred understanding of what a train crew should do."
Rockefeller is not working or getting paid, according to Meredith Daniels, MTA spokeswoman.
"He is out of service. This is an unpaid status," said Daniels, adding that Rockefeller is presumed innocent until disciplinary procedures are completed.
NTSB officials would not comment on Rockefeller's reported comments, but they have said fatigue is routinely investigated as a possible cause in such cases.
"We don't have the work history at the moment," Weener told Wolf Blitzer Monday on CNN's Situation Room.
"We will be developing what we call a 72-hour timeline, so that we have a good understanding of what sort of activities preceded this accident. That's part of our normal investigation."
Harrod said the rail and signal hardware date to World War II and, if Rockefeller was dazed or momentarily distracted, there was no system in place to alert him that he was traveling at 82 mph.
"It's a perfect-storm kind of thing," he said. "You can look back in the history books of railroad accidents and there are plenty more where this came from. Events and things that happen that in and of themselves are not supposed to be bad but they turn into bad things."
Railroad safety officials have long pushed for a system known as positive train control technology, which combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding or derailing. But the railroad industry has opposed the technology because of the high cost.
Harrod said the transportation safety board has urged railroads to install PTC in some form since 1970. In 2008, Congress ordered rail lines to adopt the technology by December 2015.
"PTC would have sounded an alarm as soon as the train exceeded the speed limit," said Harrod. "Technology will help. PTC will help. But there will be some other thing in the future, other ways that somebody will find to defeat the system or screw up."
The train was about 10 miles short of its destination, Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, when it derailed on the approach to the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx.
The NTSB's interview Monday with Rockefeller was cut short because of his emotional state, Weener told CNN. The interview was expected to resume Tuesday and Wednesday. "I think it was basically emotional issues with the engineer," Weener said. The crash, which took four lives, was "a very traumatic experience for him." Weener said Rockefeller was cooperative but was "not up to it."
NTSB officials said it is not unusual for those who have survived fatal accidents to be emotional during interviews. Nor is it unusual for the board to allow participants additional time to complete the interview.
The union representing Rockefeller would not comment on reports about the engineer being dazed but its general chairman, Anthony Botallico, said Rockefeller is cooperating.
"There's a lot of quotes coming from him, but when you're in a crash like this, anything you say in the beginning has to be taken with a grain of salt," Botallico said. "Bill is very distraught. I've been with him, and he really hasn't had a lot of sleep and he's just crushed by everything. I know how sincere he is and he'll be very forthcoming very shortly."
"Billy is fully cooperating with the NTSB," Botallico added. "He needed to get some rest. He's very traumatized by the loss of life. It's best that it comes from him what happened. He's a quality human being. I know him personally. I've been a conductor and representative, and I'd be proud to have him as my engineer."
Botallico said Rockefeller started out as a janitor at Grand Central and "worked his way up."
"He's been in operations for quite a while," he said. "He used to change the time of the trains in Grand Central. He was volunteer fireman. He's just a guy who's always gone out of his way for everyone else. It brings me to tears because the loss of life is something that -- it's the hardest thing to deal with. When you lose life it's difficult for all."
Said Harrod: "This engineer, I'm sure, as the evidence comes out, I think we're really looking at a sad, really basic kind of inattentiveness. Nothing fancy: No alcohol, no drugs, maybe not even a cell phone. Just plain vanilla inattentiveness."
- Created on 03 December 2013
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis
At home, the story is the same -- but abroad, the landscape is shifting.
According to the latest results of a comprehensive set of international exams released Tuesday, America's teens have remained mid-pack among their peers worldwide and utterly stagnant in reading, math and science over the last 10 years.
But as America's 15-year-olds failed to improve on the Programme for International Student Assessment and East Asian countries maintained their top slots, other countries not generally known for their academic prowess -- many of whom have diverse and poor populations -- have become breakout stars of a sort. Poland, Germany and Ireland showed tremendous growth, and Vietnam, which administered the exam for the first time in 2012, wound up among the top-performing countries, eclipsing the U.S. in math and science. Results like these herald Sputnik era-type fears, leading some officials to believe the U.S. is losing its competitive edge.
To read the rest of the story, click here.
- Created on 03 December 2013
Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Battered by two months of bad publicity over the Obamacare website, the White House is going on the offensive to tout what it sees as the good news about the President's signature health care reforms.
President Barack Obama launched a three-week campaign intended to highlight the benefits of the 2010 Affordable Care Act with a White House event on Tuesday.
The event comes a day after the problem-plagued Obamacare website handled more than 1 million visitors with no major problems, according to administration officials, who provided no details on how many of the users were able to fully enroll.
After the botched website launch on October 1, the administration hopes the ability of HealthCare.gov to handle heavier than average volume signaled a major step forward in getting people to sign up for health coverage now required by law under the reforms.
However, officials warn glitches will persist and describe the website as an ever-evolving work in progress. In addition, insurance companies say some "back-end" aspects of the HealthCare.gov system continued to malfunction.
In particular, insurers say there are problems with applications from people who signed up through the website, including erroneous or missing information.
Critics led by conservative Republicans trying to dismantle the health care reforms known as Obamacare say the website problems foreshadow deeper failings of the law that passed with no GOP support.
"It's not just a broken website; this bill is fundamentally flawed," House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday, later adding that "when you look at Obamacare, what you see is a government-centered health care delivery system."
Americans don't want that, the Ohio Republican insisted, declaring they instead they "want to be able to pick their own type of health insurance, they want to be able to pick their own doctor and they want to be able to pick their own hospital."
At the White House, the focus is on emphasizing how Obamacare has helped people in the three years since it became law.
"While work continues on the website, we think it is important that proponents of health reform undertake a renewed effort to refocus the public on the benefits of the law that have already been implemented," said the White House official who spoke on condition of not being identified.
Obama's remarks Tuesday represent the first wave in a tsunami of information his administration plans to unleash.
He said the website was now working well for the vast majority of users and was "here to stay" as long as he remains in office.
"This law is working and will work in the future," he said.
In a blog post on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that more than 1.46 million people have been added to Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program rolls due to expanded services under the health care reforms.
The Affordable Care Act offered states additional federal funding to offer Medicaid and CHIP coverage to more low-income Americans. So far, 24 states and the District of Columbia have accepted the expansion funding while three others are still deciding and 23 have declined.
More events will occur daily events through December 23 as the administration tries to shift attention away from the website woes of the past two months to take on Republican foes attacking the law.
A new-found confidence
Over the weekend, officials announced they had met their self-imposed November 30 deadline for getting the site working for the "vast majority" of users, saying response times and error rates had been slashed while capacity increased.
Jeffrey Zients, a former administration official brought in to oversee the website fixes after its launch, compared the hardware upgrades so far to widening a highway on-ramp from two lanes to four.
Brazile: Health care website improving
That means chronic breakdowns, error messages and delays users experienced two months ago when the website went live have mostly disappeared, he said, noting the average response time was less than 1 second and the system's "uptime" -- a measure of system stability -- was consistently surpassing 90%.
It all means that HealthCare.gov can now handle its original intended volume of 50,000 concurrent users for a total of 800,000 visitors a day, according to Zients.
A new component that put users in a waiting queue during periods of high volume provided a better-managed delay than the site freezes and error messages of October.
Three CNN journalists who attempted to sign on Monday ended up in the new queue around midday and then two hours later. Their wait lasted a few minutes before they received a prompt on their screen to proceed with enrollment.
Later in the day, users proceeded directly to enrollment without waiting, indicating reduced volume at the end of the afternoon, as officials had predicted.
The new feature also asked users in the waiting queue if they wanted to receive an e-mail when they could try again at the front of the line.
According to an HHS official, 13,000 people requested an e-mail and 60% of them -- roughly 7,800 -- later returned after getting the email notification.
White House spokesman Jay Carney noted any major website has periodic problems that must be addressed.
"It does not mean that there will be no problems with the website going forward," he said Monday when asked by reporters if HealthCare.gov was truly fixed or merely functioning at a minimal level.
Administration: Obamacare website working smoothly
Not all roses in the Rose Garden
Vocal throughout the launch of the program and the successive problems, the GOP stayed vigilant with its critique.
"President Obama and his administration repeatedly claimed the Obamacare website would be fully functioning by the end of November, but this has proven to be just another broken promise," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "The Obama administration had over three years to build HealthCare.gov, and all they've produced is a non-functioning website, wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars."
Obamacare site fix: 5 things to look for
Insurers: Site glitches persist
In October, the first month of a six-month enrollment period, just over 106,000 people signed up for Obamacare. Less than 27,000 of them did so through the HealthCare.gov website, which was supposed to be the main enrollment portal.
An administration official familiar with the matter told CNN that about 100,000 people signed up for coverage last month on the site. The official cautioned the number was preliminary and final numbers would be released in mid-December.
Joanne Peters, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said enrollment through alternate channels and successful exchanges in 14 states would help bolster November figures.
Initial enrollment figures lower than hoped
Website progress garners muted reaction from Congress
Marilyn Tavenner, the official charged with implementing Obamacare as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told a congressional hearing last month that the administration initially hoped to enroll 800,000 people by the end of November. The overall enrollment target by the March 31 deadline for 2014 is 7 million.
A properly functioning HealthCare.gov is crucial to implementing the most vital provisions of the health law that require people to have health coverage.
The coming months will show if it was successful.
- Created on 03 December 2013
BY JESSE JACKSON
Pope Francis is displaying an extraordinary style and passion that demands our attention. He addresses the needs of the poor, embraces outcasts, and loves those on the margins of society. In this recent “apostolic exhortation,” The Joy of the Gospel, the pope raises a moral challenge to both his church and the world. Like Dr. Mar...