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Effort to rebuild trust backfires

September 16, 2008|Louis Sahagun and Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writers

Before facing reporters the day after the catastrophic train collision in Chatsworth, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell called the agency's chief executive to make an unusual request.

"I asked him to allow me to make a statement to rebuild public trust," she recalled, "and I told him we had to be honest and upfront about what happened."

David Solow, she said, "agreed" with her plans to publicly acknowledge Saturday that a preliminary investigation showed the Metrolink engineer ran a red light before the commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific freight train.

Her teary comments and surprising candor elicited a flood of encouragement from Metrolink staff members and commuters from as far as London and Vietnam.

By Monday, Tyrrell had resigned her $86,000-a-year post amid intense criticism from Metrolink officials and federal investigators who called her public comments premature and inappropriate.

But Tyrrell, 55, has no regrets.

"When you have loss of life, spinning is unacceptable," she said.

Clutching a cup of foamy latte in a Sherman Oaks coffee shop and fighting back tears during an early morning interview, Tyrrell said, "I still feel I did the right thing. We work for the public."

Although some officials began to defend her Monday afternoon, she said that she was particularly stung by Metrolink authorities' comments suggesting that she may have been emotionally overcome by the tragedy.

"Essentially," she said, "they're saying I'm a woman overwhelmed by events and unable to control her emotions."

Tyrrell initially worked as a publications writer for Metrolink. She became spokeswoman in late 2004, five weeks before the second-deadliest Metrolink incident: 11 people were killed Jan. 26, 2005, when a Metrolink commuter train hit a sport utility vehicle.

"My bosses said I did virtuoso work on that incident," Tyrrell recalled.

Last Friday, she learned of the 4:23 p.m. crash minutes after it occurred and she arrived in Chatsworth about 5:30 p.m. For the next 10 hours, she observed a series of "very disturbing things," and listened to chatter among rescuers carting bodies out of the wreckage.

"The talk was that there was a very good possibility that we were at fault," Tyrrell said.

On Saturday morning, Tyrrell participated in a conference call with more than 30 agency officials.

Topics of discussion included the results of a preliminary investigation indicating that the Metrolink engineer had run through the red signal.

"I advised them to get in front of it," she said. "I told them that since hundreds of people were already talking about it, it was going to come out. I told them it was the honorable thing to do."

After the conference call, she contacted Solow, Metrolink's chief executive, and "privately advised him to allow me to make a statement before the National Transportation Safety Board took control of the scene and shut us down."

As Solow confirmed Monday, he agreed, providing that she also point out that the investigation was continuing and the NTSB would make a final determination.

"I gave her that authorization, and it was wrong," he said. "My direction in this matter was premature."

Solow declined to elaborate on "a personnel matter now between an employer and an employee."

He said that he did not ask her to reconsider when she announced her resignation.

Tyrrell did not know at the time of Saturday's news conference that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's staff had gotten word of what she was about to say and advised the mayor not to participate, according to Matt Szabo, his spokesman.

As Tyrrell spoke, Villaraigosa stood quietly nearby, but off-camera.

Champions of honesty in government hailed Tyrrell's statement and said it may help relatives of the crash victims find closure.

"Metrolink's acknowledgment was extremely unusual and a very, very refreshing change because this kind of acknowledgment moves everybody forward in looking for how they can begin to repair their families' lives and more importantly begin to address the causes behind the accident," said Kathay Feng, an attorney and executive director of California Common Cause.

"Too often when public agencies get into embattled mode and shut down communication, that hurts the public. They're not looking for solutions and you can see those problems recurring," said the state chief of the organization whose mission statement is "Holding power accountable."

Others still view Tyrrell's remarks as premature. Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, a Metrolink board member, said Monday: "It would have been more appropriate to have said, 'It appears the Metrolink train ran a red light. How it happened remains to be determined by the National Transportation Board, which has taken control of the investigation.' "

But late Monday, the tides began to turn again, this time in her favor.

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