Engineer is blamed in LA train crash
Metrolink officials said Saturday that an engineer on their commuter train that collided head-on with a freight train, killing at least 25 people, likely ignored a red light telling him to stop.
LOS ANGELES — Metrolink officials said Saturday that an engineer on their commuter train that collided head-on with a freight train, killing at least 25 people, likely ignored a red light telling him to stop.
Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said her agency's preliminary findings determined the signal on the track was working properly and that both trains appeared to be traveling at about 40 mph. The conductor of the train, who gives the commands to the engineer, was being interviewed by law-enforcement officials, she said.
She said the engineer, whom she did not identify, was a subcontractor with Veolia Transportation and a former Amtrak employee. She believed he had died in the crash. She did not know why safety measures and controls along the way failed.
"When two trains are in the same place at the same time, somebody's made a terrible mistake," said Tyrrell, who was near tears as she spoke.
National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said her agency, which is leading the crash investigation, is waiting to complete its examination before making any statements about the cause of the accident. It hopes to complete its final report within a year.
Higgins said crews 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.
A spokesman for the United Transportation Union, Frank Wilner, said he was "stunned that Metrolink would attribute a cause to the crash without confirmation from federal investigators that the signals were working properly or that other nonhuman factors did not contribute."
Authorities said Saturday evening that the effort to recover bodies from the Metrolink train's crushed front car had ended, with the death toll at 24. It rose to 25 when USC Medical Center spokeswoman Adelaide DeLaCerda said a victim died there.
"It was a very, very difficult operation," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of the wreckage search. "It was like peeling an onion to find all the victims there."
The number of dead may rise, officials said, because 40 of the 135 people injured were in critical condition.
Earlier, firefighters and others sifted through mounds of twisted metal, shattered glass and charred seats left from Friday's head-on collision of a northbound Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, in the northwest San Fernando Valley. The commuter train was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and one conductor; the freight train had a crew of three.
Scores of riders on the Metrolink train bound from downtown Los Angeles described how their quiet commute had been dotted with chatter about the weekend until it was punctured by instant terror and carnage about 4:20 p.m.
Passengers flew into one another's laps; nearly severed limbs became tangled and blood spilled along the cars' aisles. In some cases, the living were trapped beneath the dead.
The first sign of trouble was "a huge explosion," said Greg Tevis, 59, who regularly rides the train. "People who had their legs under the seats got broken legs. People were moaning; you had to get them off the train."
Before the first rescue workers arrived, passengers who were able began to drag out the injured, and neighbors ran toward the scene to help.
"People were standing around like zombies," Tevis said. "You had to get them off the train. Some guy was coming down the aisle screaming that the train was on fire and we were all going to die."
The impact of the crash was so violent that the Metrolink engine was shoved into a passenger car, which collapsed on its side. The freight-train cars accordioned, and other Metrolink cars were derailed.
Among the dead, officials confirmed, was a police officer, Spree Desha, 35. When her identity was learned, all officers on the scene formed lines, stood at attention and saluted in silence as her body, covered in a white sheet, was lifted down a ladder and placed with other victims.
Metrolink launched its service in Southern California in 1992. More than 45,000 commuters use Metrolink trains weekdays in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Friday's crash was the deadliest commuter-train crash in the nation since 1972, when 45 people died in a Chicago train wreck, and the deadliest train crash of any kind since the 1993 Amtrak crash in Mobile, Ala., in which 47 died.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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