Rail line says train ran signal; Death toll at 25
Published: September 13, 2008
Source: New York Times
LOS ANGELES — An engineer who ran a red signal here and crashed head-on into
a freight train likely caused the nation’s deadliest commuter train wreck in
nearly four decades, a spokeswoman for the rail line said Saturday.
The death toll rose to at least 25 from the collision on Friday of the northbound Metrolink train carrying about 225 passengers and
the freight train in Chatsworth, a mostly residential district in the northwest San Fernando Valley, officials said. The number of dead may rise, they said, because of the 135 people injured, 40 were in critical condition.
The federal investigation into the crash had just begun, but a rail line spokeswoman, Denise Tyrrell said, “Our preliminary investigation shows it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and was the probable cause of the accident.” She acknowledged that it was unusual for the agency to announce findings before a federal team investigates.
The crash was the deadliest commuter train accident in the nation since 1972, when 45 people died in Chicago, and the deadliest train crash of any kind since the 1993 Amtrakcrash in Mobile, Ala., in which 47 people died.
At the crash site, firefighters and other rescue workers toiled nonstop Saturday, sifting through and searching for bodies under tons of twisted metal, shattered glass, charred seats and engine parts.
The engineer was the only one of five train workers — three on the freight train and two on the commuter railroad — to die in the crash, Ms. Tyrrell said. She said the engineer, whom she did not identify, worked for an Amtrak subcontractor that had been used by Metrolink since 1998.
Ms. Tyrrell said her agency’s preliminary findings determined that the signal on the track was working properly, and that both trains appeared to be traveling about 40 miles per hour. The conductor of the train, who gives the commands to the engineer, was being interviewed by law enforcement officials, she said.
Metrolink disclosed its findings so quickly, she said, because officials of the rail line, “want to remain on honorable grounds with the community.”
“One way to do that is to be honest and forthright from the beginning,” she said, adding, “We don’t come to this conclusion lightly.”
National Transportation Safety Boardofficials were far less conclusive. A safety board member, Kitty Higgins, said that while the agency could “absolutely not rule out” human error, it would examine track signals, equipment and many other factors. Three data recorders taken from the two trains, as well as a video recorder from the freight train, would be analyzed, she said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggerof California, who arrived at the scene midafternoon, said, “The investigation, of course, continues on.”
At a news conference, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosaof Los Angeles said the last of the dead had just been pulled from the wreckage of the freight train’s 11 boxcars and the three Metrolink cars, which had been traveling from downtown to the city’s northern suburbs. The mayor quoted a firefighter who he said had told him: “It was very, very difficult. It was like peeling an onion, to find all the victims.”
Nearby, the Los Angeles County coroner set up a large tan air-conditioned tent in the grassy area between the wreck and Chatsworth Hills Academy.
Many passengers described how their quiet commute had been dotted with chatter about the coming weekend until it was punctured by instant terror and carnage shortly before 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Passengers flew into one another’s laps; nearly severed limbs became tangled together, and blood spilled along the cars’ aisles. In some cases, the living were trapped beneath the bodies of the dead.
The first sound was “a huge explosion,” said Greg Tevis, 59, who regularly rides the train from his downtown law office.
“People who had their legs under the seats got broken legs,” Mr. Tevis said. “People were moaning; you had to get them off the train. One lady was trapped under a seat, and we asked her if she wanted us to pull her out, because we didn’t know whether her spinal cord was hurt. She said to take her out.”
In the minutes before the first firefighters arrived Friday, passengers who were able began to drag out the injured, and neighbors ran to the scene to help. “People were standing around like zombies,” Mr. Tevis said. “You had to get them off the train. Some guy was coming down the aisle screaming that the train was on fire and we were all going to die.”
The impact of the crash was so violent that the Metrolink engine was shoved back into a passenger car, which collapsed on its side. The freight train cars essentially collapsed like an accordion, and the other Metrolink cars were derailed.
At the news conference Saturday, a visibly choked up Los Angeles deputy fire chief, Mario Rueda, described the horrific task of trying gingerly to pull apart tons of steel with the dead visible in the cars.
The 40 critically injured victims was “a very high number, much higher than we normally encounter,” Chief Rueda said. “It has been very, very difficult work.”
Among the dead, officials confirmed, was a police officer, Spree Desha, 35. When her identity was learned, all officers on the scene formed lines, stood at attention and saluted in silence as her body, covered in a white sheet, was lifted down a ladder and placed with 10 other victims a short distance from the tracks.
Families, many praying that their loved ones would be found alive, waited frantically through the night at hospitals and at nearby Chatsworth High School, where a triage center was set up. Mr. Villaraigosa said 135 people had been treated, including 81 who had gone to roughly a dozen hospitals. “Words can’t explain or in any way console those who have lost loved ones,” he said.
Red Cross volunteers took the names and phone numbers of family members and the names of those they believed to have been on the train. A man who appeared to be in his 20s sat for a half hour with his head in his hands, not moving. A woman with gray hair and a cane stared into the distance and covered her mouth.
Stephanie Greasby, 57, sat on a wooden bench outside and waited for word from her brother. “I decided to get in the car and find my brother,” she said. “He’s my baby brother.”
Penny Tunney, who was in the second Metrolink car, called another passenger’s family with a cellphone she found in the wreckage. Her fellow passenger’s nephew, R. J. Key 29, raced to the emergency room entrance of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, in Mission Hills, where 14 of the more severely injured were taken. He found his aunt in a triage center, with fairly minor injuries, and because he had been trained as a lifeguard, was put immediately to work aiding the injured.
Dr. Thomas Waskiewicz, an emergency room doctor who spoke with the news media in the driveway of the hospital, about 11 miles west of the crash site, said 16 passengers between ages 17 and 82 were tended to, five of them in critical condition. Amal K. Obaid, a surgeon who tended to many victims, said: “They have head injuries, multiple facial fractures, chest trauma, collapsed lungs, rib fractures, pelvic fractures, leg and arm fractures, cuts in the skin and soft tissue. Some have blood in the brain.”
Late Saturday, there were widespread news reports in Los Angeles that the engineer might have been sending text messages within minutes of the crash.
At a news conference, Ms. Higgins, of the transportation safety board, said the reports would be investigated, but she urged caution. She noted that she had been involved in the investigation of a commuter train crash in Boston in May in which rumors that the driver had been using a cellphone were unfounded.
The crash on Friday comes on the heels of the legal conclusion of what had been the deadliest crash in the history of Metrolink, the regional rail service for Southern California. That accident occurred in 2005 near Glendale, where 11 people were killed and nearly 200 injured when a Los Angeles man abandoned his Jeep on railroad tracks, resulting in a crash involving three trains.
The man, Juan M. Alvarez, said he had planned to commit suicide but changed his mind and tried to move the Jeep before it was struck by the train. He was charged with 11 counts of murder and convicted last June.