September 14, 2008

Engineer Ignored Red Light, Officials Say

Officials said Saturday that an engineer on the Metrolink commuter train that collided head-on Friday with a freight train - killing 25 people and critically injuring dozens more - ignored a red light signal telling him to stop.

Had the engineer obeyed the signal, the accident would not have occurred, said Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell.

"We want to be honest in our appraisal," she said Saturday at the scene of the crash as rescue workers, now in recovery mode, used heavy machinery to untangle the twisted remains of the most damaged passenger car.

"Barring any information from the NTSB , we believe our engineer failed to stop and that was the cause of the accident," she said. "Of course, it is your worst fear that this could happen, that the ability for human error to occur could come into the scenario."

Tyrrell said the engineer, whom she did not identify, was a subcontractor with Veolia Transportation and a former Amtrak employee. She believed that he had been killed in the crash but could not confirm the death. She did not know why safety measures and controls along the way, including communication with dispatchers, failed.

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said her agency, which is leading the inquiry , is waiting to complete its investigation before making any statements about the cause of the accident. It hopes to complete its final report within a year.

Higgins said rescue crews 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.

Authorities said they've finished the search for victims and the death toll stands at 25.

Hope for a miracle held out throughout the early morning, even though authorities said the last survivor was pulled from the wreckage before sunset Friday, just hours after the commuter train carrying 225 people collided with a Union Pacific freight train on a sharp curve .

"They are pulling things apart very carefully because, if there is a miracle, they don't want to undo it," Lt. John Romero of the Los Angeles Police Department said shortly after 7:30 a.m.

But by 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials conceded that it was unlikely anyone else had survived.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to visit the crash site.

Ed Winter, assistant chief of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said rescuers had finished searching the top tier of the first double-decker car, which took the brunt of the collision. But work remained on the bottom level, he said.

Families of eight of the deceased have been notified, he added.

Los Angeles police Officer Spree Desha, 35, of Simi Valley was identified as among the dead late Friday, the first victim to be named by authorities.

With so many survivors critically injured - Los Angeles Fire Department counted about 40 - more deaths were anticipated.

In some instances, authorities said, they have been unable to identify victims, including two Jane Does who were taken to hospitals, said Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Mario Rueda.

Rescue teams had worked frantically overnight. More than 135 people were injured in one of the worst train crashes in Southern California history.

Authorities said Saturday that about 100 people were taken to hospitals - 60 by ambulance and 40 by helicopter. All 12 trauma centers in Los Angeles County received patients, authorities said.

Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said teams used hydraulic jacks to keep the most badly damaged passenger car from falling over and other specialized rescue equipment to gently pull apart the metal. The goal was to eliminate every piece of metal and gradually work down into the passenger spaces.

"There's so much damage, we need to wait for heavier equipment," Ruda said early Saturday.

Metrolink's Train 111, en route from Los Angeles' Union Station downtown to the city of Moorpark in Ventura County, had just left the Chatsworth station when the crash occurred at 4:23 p.m. Friday on a 45-degree bend.

The engine of the freight train embedded itself in the front Metrolink carriage and both trains derailed, sending one of the passenger train's three cars full of homebound commuters keeling onto its side. An earsplitting concussion rocked nearby homes, followed by screams from those aboard.

"I saw it coming," said Eric Forbes, 56, an administrator at California State University at Northridge who was riding in another car of the Metrolink train when he glanced out the window to see the freight train bearing down.

"There was no time to stop," he said Friday at a nearby triage center as he was wheeled on a stretcher to an ambulance. "The next thing I knew I was in a seat in front of me. It was horrible."

The worst train wreck in Los Angeles history occurred Jan. 22, 1956, when a Santa Fe train from Los Angeles to San Diego lurched off a curve near the Los Angeles River, killing 30 people and injuring 130.


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