NTSB hunts details in deadly commuter train wreck

Other News Materials 15 September 2008 03:44 (UTC +04:00)

Federal investigators on Sunday combed railroad tracks and crushed wreckage looking for evidence to explain the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years and made plans to interview dispatchers.

At the same time, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman played down a report that the engineer of the Metrolink commuter train had sent a text message shortly before Friday's accident, in which 25 people were killed and 135 were injured.

The train slammed into an oncoming Union Pacific freight engine on the same track at 40 mph.

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell had said the commuter train's engineer was at fault because he failed to stop at a red light on the tracks ї but NTSB members cautioned that they had not completed their investigation.

Eleven NTSB investigators were working on the accident, said agency spokesman Terry Williams.

Men wearing green and orange safety vests walked up and down the tracks in an early morning fog, while others snapped pictures and climbed inside the wrecked shell of the front passenger car.

Williams said he couldn't confirm reports that the engineer was text messaging shortly before the crash, but said investigators would consider that.

"We're going to look into that, anything that can help us find the cause of this accident," he said.

Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said survivors' injuries included partially severed limbs and legs flayed to the bone. At least two survivors had to be extricated from underneath dead bodies and six victims were discovered under the train Saturday, he said.

"There were bodies cut in half, and I could see torsos sticking out. It was pretty horrific," Eckstein said. "The bodies were entwined with the wreckage. "

Eckstein said all rescue personnel were required to check in with a staff psychologist before leaving the scene ї but many, including himself, preferred to deal privately with what they saw.

"All you can do is go home and hug your wife and kids, I guess," he said. "These people were regular working people like you and I and headed home looking forward to a weekend with their families ї and they're dead in an instant."

Rescue crews recovered two data recorders Saturday from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.

Families of victims struggled with their loss after the coroner's office released a partial list of the names of the dead. Among them was a Los Angeles police officer and a city employee who was believed to work in the general services office, said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Spree Desha, 35, had worked for the Police Department for seven years and spent much of her career training new officers. She had been honored 34 times for performance and professional qualities.

"She sat in the first train (car) as a matter of practice, in uniform, so if someone came on the train and made trouble, she was ready to help out," Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said. "That was just the way she did business."

Larry Remata, 58, said he was in Hawaii visiting his 100-year-old mother and rushed home when he got news that his wife, Donna, was among the dead.

"Right now, I am grieving. It is starting to hit me a little bit. Especially seeing her name in the newspaper ї it hurt me more," he said.

There were no new reports of fatalities from hospitals Sunday, and the scene was cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the county coroner's office.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.

At a news conference late Saturday, the NTSB's Kitty Higgins said it was too early to determine what caused the crash but noted that a pair of switches that control whether a train goes onto the siding were open. One of them should have been closed, Higgins said.

"The indication is that it was forced open," possibly by the Metrolink train, Higgins said.

The commuter train, heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and one conductor when it collided with the Union Pacific freight, which had a crew of three. The impact rammed the Metrolink engine backward, jamming it deep into the first passenger car.

It was the deadliest passenger train crash since Sept. 22, 1993, when Amtrak's Sunset Limited plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala., moments after the trestle was damaged by a towboat; 47 people were killed.