Cause Disputed In Deadly L.A. Train Crash

By: AP
By: AP

(CBS/AP) The operators of the commuter train involved in the head-on crash in a Los Angeles suburb that killed at least 25 people Friday were quick to cite a cause: they said the train's engineer was responsible for the horrific accident, the deadliest U.S. rail disaster in 15 years.

Metrolink officials Saturday put the blame squarely on the engineer of the train, saying he ran a red signal.

In addition, CBS Station KCAL correspondent Kristine Lazar reported exclusively that one minute before the crash, a teenager received a text message on his cell phone from the engineer, whom friends identified as Robert Sanchez.

The text message received told where Sanchez would be meeting another passenger train.

But train enthusiasts who knew Sanchez well doubt that he was to blame. They called their friend professional and caring. To a man, they said he would "never" have been reckless or unprofessional.

Another of Sanchez's friends, teenager Evan Morrison, told Lazar that Sanchez "was not the kind of guy who would run a red light."

When asked by KCAL to comment on the report, Metrolink spokesperson Denise Tyrell said, "I can't believe someone could be texting while driving a train."

"Rush To Judgment"

However, a National Transportation Safety Board member cautioned that it was too early to establish the cause of Friday's accident. Others, too, questioned the timing of the operator's move to affix culpability.

Rescuers were still sifting through the twisted wreckage Saturday when Metrolink announced - 19 hours after the crash - that its preliminary investigation had determined the engineer failed to heed a red signal light, leading to the collision with a Union Pacific freight train.

The engineer was among the dead, the NTSB said. The coroner has released the names of 20 of the fatalities; the engineer's name was not on the list, nor were three victims whose families have not been contacted, nor a 25th who has not been positively identified.

A total of 135 people were injured.

There was no change in the death toll Sunday. There were no new reports of any injured passengers dying at hospitals and the crash site had been cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Tyrrell, said Metrolink was stepping ahead of the NTSB in suggesting a cause of the accident because "we want to have an honest dialogue with our community." She said internal investigators had reviewed dispatcher recordings and the operation of the trackside signal system.

(KCAL)(Left: Text message received from Metrolink operator Robert Sanchez shortly before the fatal train collision.)

Part of the railroad's safety system involves a series of signals that tell engineers whether the path ahead is clear. According to Metrolink, the engineer missed a stop signal shortly before the accident site - the last of three that would have warned another train was ahead on a single stretch of track. In that area, trains going both ways share track that winds through a series of narrow tunnels.

The NTSB, the federal agency leading the investigation, did not rule out Metrolink's theory but will complete its witness interviews and review of evidence - which could take a year - before announcing conclusions.

"We don't know why it happened, and it's our job to find out," said board member Kitty Higgins.

Higgins said rescue teams on Saturday recovered two data recorders from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.

The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.

Investigators planned to test the signals on the track and the brakes on the trains as well as interview Metrolink dispatchers.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park in the San Fernando Valley. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass.

Higgins noted that a pair of "switches" that control whether a train goes into a siding were open. One of them should have been closed, she said.

"The indication is that it was forced open," possibly by the Metrolink train, she said of one of the switches.

The Metrolink train, heading from downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and a conductor when it collided with the freight train, with its crew of three. The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.

The crash forced the Metrolink engine well back into the first passenger car, and both toppled over. Two other passenger cars remained upright.

Firefighters worked relentlessly for nearly a day to assist survivors and extract bodies.

Of the 135 people injured, 81 were taken to hospitals in serious or critical condition. There was no overall condition update available Saturday, but a telephone survey of five hospitals found nine of 34 patients still critical.

The Metrolink engineer was employed by Connex Railroad, a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation, which said it began operating Metrolink routes in 2005. The company issued a brief statement saying it was "fully cooperating" with investigators.

Metrolink's assertion that engineer error caused the accident drew some criticism.

Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metrolink board member Don Knabe said it is premature to blame the engineer.

"There could always be a technical malfunction where ... there was a green light both ways," he said.

Ray Garcia, a Metrolink conductor until 2006 who now works for Amtrak, the intercity passenger train service, said initial evidence could be misleading, as in the case of a central computer inaccurately showing that a signal was red.

"It is a rush to judgment," he said. "It's just way too early in the game to point the finger."

Until Friday, Metrolink's worst disaster was on Jan. 26, 2005, in suburban Glendale, where a man parked a gasoline-soaked sport utility vehicle on railroad tracks. A Metrolink train struck the car and derailed, striking another Metrolink train traveling the other way, killing 11 people and injuring about 180 others. Juan Alvarez was convicted this year of murder for causing the crash.

Friday's train crash was the deadliest since Sept. 22, 1993, when the Sunset Limited, an Amtrak passenger train, plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Alabama, moments after the trestle was damaged by a towboat; 47 people were killed.

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