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METROLINK COLLISION

'Railfans' create virtual memorial for engineer

Teens caught up in the texting aspect of the crash probe have been silent, except online.

September 19, 2008|Scott Gold and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

The tribute reads like something that might be written for a rock star who died too soon: "We will never forget you. Let your warm-hearted soul RIP."

Those words, however, part of a YouTube video tribute, were written to a train engineer. They were written to Robert M. Sanchez, who was at the helm of the Metrolink train that slammed into an oncoming freight train in Chatsworth, killing 25 people, one week ago. And they were written by his fans, which is not as unusual as it sounds.

Earlier this week, investigators announced that Sanchez's cellphone records showed he had been text-messaging while on duty the day of the crash.

A group of local teens -- railroad enthusiasts, some of whom considered Sanchez something of a mentor -- are believed to have been on the other end of some of those messages.

In the days since the crash, the teens have gone largely into hiding, shielded mostly by their parents from a wave of media attention and public interest. In private, it is clear that they are crushed.

"It's just devastating," said Mark Speer, 53, a film editor who lives in Chatsworth and whose son, also named Mark, was part of the group of teen train enthusiasts.

The boys comprised a circle of friends who described themselves as dedicated "railfans" -- rail enthusiasts who often scoured the streets and hills to find choice spots for filming videos of passing trains, which they posted on the Internet, and who often participated in model railroad clubs.

Several were aspiring engineers, and they often rode the Metrolink out of Chatsworth -- the station that Metrolink 111 left before it crashed -- just for fun. They had developed extensive knowledge of the rails, including schedules and characteristics of certain trains. Recently, they got to know Sanchez, who apparently swapped information with some of the teens, communicating by text messages.

Rail officials say it's common for enthusiasts, particularly teenagers, to strike up friendships with engineers.

Most of these railfans were earnest, smart kids, still in middle school and high school, who, according to their Internet postings, liked Xbox and water polo, Kobe and Kanye. Today, they are connected by three things: an abiding love of trains; a sense that they are misunderstood and maligned by "railhaters" who mock their hobby; and anguish over the death of Sanchez and his passengers.

They splashed into the public's consciousness after the crash, when some of them went to the site and spoke with a television news reporter. One of the teens showed the reporter his cellphone, still containing short messages from Sanchez.

"It was an innocent thing to memorialize" Sanchez, said Speer -- a way to show the public that Sanchez was a good man and a dedicated professional who managed to find the time to interact with the public while doing his job. By the time the story reached the airwaves it had become something very different and very stark: that Sanchez was sending text messages while on the job.

The teens -- who believe that factors other than text-messaging contributed to the crash -- feel blindsided and burned by the TV report and the ensuing public response, Speer said. The worst of it came on Internet sites, where people anonymously attacked the teenagers -- even suggesting that they had played a role in the tragedy.

"It's just too much," one of the teens, who gave his name only as Brian, said in an e-mail Thursday night.

Although they are saying virtually nothing in public, on the Internet -- where the teens' fascination with trains began, where some of them found each other and bonded in the first place -- their anguish is seeping out.

There appear to be 10 or 15 teen railfans who have posted a variety of responses to the train crash on the Internet. Some are friends in what they call "the real world" -- on the streets of Chatsworth or in the San Bernardino Mountains, where they meet to take photographs and videos of trains. Some are friends only in cyberspace.

Shortly after the crash, several posted a tribute to Sanchez on YouTube. They included two 14-year-old boys who have since been asked for their phone records by the National Transportation Safety Board because they are believed to have been text-messaging Sanchez on the day of the crash.

The boys and their families are cooperating with the investigation. (The younger Speer never sent or received messages from Sanchez.)

The tribute video includes fuzzy pictures the teens took of Sanchez at the helm of a Metrolink train and reveals their extensive knowledge about trains -- noting, among other things, that the video was taken several days before the crash but includes the actual set of cars used that day, including Locomotive No. 855.

"You take care Rob," the text of the tribute says. "Godspeed. And God bless you."

Since then, additional reaction to the train crash has sprung up -- in online chats between the teens and in additional postings to YouTube and MySpace pages.

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