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Train engineer sent text message just before crash

October 02, 2008|Robert J. Lopez, Rich Connell and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

A Metrolink engineer sent a text message from his cellphone 22 seconds before he collided with an oncoming freight train in an accident that killed 25 people last month, according to preliminary information released Wednesday by federal authorities.

Engineer Robert M. Sanchez sent the message at 4:22 p.m., just before he slammed into the Union Pacific train Sept. 12 in Chatsworth, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement. He also received a message about a minute earlier, the agency said.

In all, Sanchez received or sent 57 text messages while on duty the day of the catastrophic collision.

The findings fill in key gaps regarding the moments before the crash and indicate that Sanchez was conscious and feeling well enough to text, even though the practice is strictly prohibited by Metrolink policy.

Officials didn't say whom Sanchez was messaging. A Metrolink official said an engineer on another commuter rail train was suspended for sending text messages about the time of the crash.

The safety board cautioned that additional research was necessary to develop a more complete picture. Determination of "the precise timing and correlation of these events is still underway," the NTSB said.

Two USC academics said Wednesday that judging by what is known about the train's speed after it left the Chatsworth station, the last text message would have been sent shortly after Sanchez passed a signal that should have warned him of the freight train.

But it remains to be conclusively determined whether Sanchez had left the station when he sent that message and how close he was to the point of impact.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Wednesday that the agency would not comment beyond the preliminary information in the statement.

Rail experts said they were alarmed that Sanchez was operating his cellphone along a critical segment of the train's downtown L.A.-to-Ventura County run. The area, a mile north of the Chatsworth station, is where Metrolink trains must regularly stop so freight trains can pull off the main track onto a siding.

"For me, it just gives me heart palpitations thinking about it," said Tim Smith, a former train engineer and California chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the union that represented Sanchez. "The last thing you want to be doing is something that takes your eyes off the road."

Sanchez's brother, John, said he is still waiting for the NTSB and Metrolink to finish probing whether faulty safety equipment or interference with radio and cellphone communications contributed to the crash. He said the agency seemed more interested in trying to "reinforce what they've said in the past two weeks."

Federal investigators said Sanchez was supposed to stop at a red signal just before a switch mechanism intended to guide the Union Pacific train onto the sidetrack.

Instead, Sanchez barreled over the switch at 42 mph, bending it badly, before slamming into the southbound train on a sharp curve about a quarter-mile farther, according to federal investigators. They said Sanchez never hit his brakes.

The safety board said Wednesday that it was continuing to pore over other records at the agency laboratory in Washington, D.C., including computer data from the signal system and the Metrolink train's recorder boxes, which will be synchronized with the times of the text messages.

The data recorder information is critical, experts said, because it will allow investigators to pinpoint the train's location at different moments and show where Sanchez revved up and throttled down his engine.

Investigators have not said whether they think the text messages played any role in the crash or affected Sanchez's ability to operate the train. But the two USC academics calculated for The Times what may have happened just before the crash.

Using the NTSB figures that Sanchez's train was traveling 42 mph in the area from the red signal to the collision point and correlating the times of his text messaging, Najmedin Meshkati, a USC engineering professor and veteran transportation safety expert, estimated that the last text message would have been sent about five seconds after Sanchez sped past the signal.

Gokhan Esirgen, laboratory director for instructional physics at USC, also calculated that Sanchez would have sent the last message just after the light. He believes this timetable provided little or no time for Sanchez to react after he saw the oncoming train.

Even if Sanchez wasn't sending a text message at the exact moment of the crash, he may have had "inattention blindness," said David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who's studied cellphone use's effect on motorists.

"If you're busy text messaging and you're taking a minute or so to key in a message, you're obviously not going to see the things that go by when you're looking at the keyboard and screen," said Strayer, adding that it often takes motorists five to 10 seconds to readjust their focus to the road.

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