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Warning signals were working, officials say

As wary commuters get back on trains, federal investigators sum up early findings in the fatal crash.

September 16, 2008|Robert J. Lopez and Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writers

Three signals that should have warned a Metrolink engineer to stop before hitting a freight train appear to have been working and visible prior to last week's catastrophic collision, federal safety investigators said Monday, hours after some anxious commuters returned to their usual trains.

"There were no obstructions to viewing any of the signals," National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins told reporters as she summed up the early stages of what promises to be a lengthy investigation into the crash that killed 25 people in Chatsworth on Friday.

Higgins said the Metrolink train ran through a red signal instead of stopping to allow the southbound Union Pacific freight train to pull onto a siding to allow the commuter train to pass. It then crossed a switching mechanism on the main track at 42 mph, so fast that it bent a switch, which had been closed to guide the freight train onto the siding.

Higgins said the safety board had subpoenaed cellphone records from Verizon Wireless to determine whether the engineer of the commuter train had been text messaging in the moments leading up to the head-on collision.

Metrolink's chief spokeswoman, Denise Tyrrell, resigned Monday after she was intensely criticized by superiors who said she had spoken prematurely in saying the crash was caused by the Metrolink engineer's mistake.

The coroner's office identified the engineer as Robert Martin Sanchez, 46, of La Crescenta, who was described by neighbors as a man who cherished his privacy but spoke lovingly about trains.

A man at Sanchez's home declined to give his name but said he was the engineer's older brother.

"My brother loved trains all his life," he said. "He died doing what he loved. You don't have any idea what we're feeling right now. We feel awful for the victims. I'm thinking about my little brother."

In addition to the 25 dead, 135 passengers were injured in the crash. Twenty-four remained hospitalized Monday, including four in critical condition.

Metrolink trains resumed service between Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the Chatsworth station, just south of the crash site. Beyond that, Metrolink operated bus service to and from the Moorpark and Simi Valley stations. Higgins said it was her understanding that rail service over the crash site would resume this afternoon.

"It's creepy," Robin Leftwich said Monday afternoon as Train 111 -- the same line that crashed -- pulled into a quiet Glendale station on its way to Chatsworth. Leftwich, an attorney who rides Metrolink every day between Chatsworth and Union Station, noticed that no regular passengers were getting on. "Normally, so many people get on here," she said.

Because she gets off at Chatsworth, Leftwich had left the train Friday moments before it crashed. She found out about the crash when her husband called her, and she turned on her TV. "Oh my God, that's the car I was in!" she exclaimed. "It must be 111."

Earlier Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined morning commuters at the Chatsworth train station to try to reassure them.

"I want to dispel any fears about taking the train," he said. "Safety has to be our No. 1 concern. Taking the train is still the safest option for commuters."

The vice chairman of the Metrolink board, Keith Millhouse, joined Villaraigosa. Millhouse, a Moorpark councilman, said he had friends aboard the Ventura County-bound train who were killed and others who were seriously injured.

"We will do everything possible to find out what happened and fix it," he said.

As she waited to board the train, Barbara Copelof, a supervisor for a credit union in Glendale, clutched a newspaper clipping about Roger Spacey, a fellow commuter who was killed in the crash. By returning to the train, she said, she hoped to overcome her fear. Also, she said, "I needed to connect with my train people to make sure they were OK."

The Moorpark station, usually bustling with commuters, was quieter and emptier as buses shuttled people to Chatsworth. Two makeshift memorials with flowers, candles and stuffed toys had been created for the crash victims, with handwritten names of the deceased.

"We will miss you Chris forever in our hearts. We love you, Godspeed," one message read.

A white Volkswagen Beetle belonging to crash victim Maria Elena Villalobos sat in the parking lot, sunflowers, daisies and lilies arranged on the hood. On the back window, someone had scribbled in the dust: "I love you pretty girl."

Rick Heckler, a 10-year Metrolink rider, said he typically takes the 111 home but missed it Friday when he had to respond to a memo at his office. Despite his near miss, Heckler, a contract project manager for the Metropolitan Water District, said he was committed to taking Metrolink.

"It's still safer to be on the train than it is to be on a freeway," he said.

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