September 14, 2008 in Nation/World

Engineer ignored red light, agency says

Metrolink thinks he’s among at least 24 dead
By Garrett Therolf, Esmeralda Bermudez and Gale Holland Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Police, firefighters and others stand as an honor guard as the body of a Los Angeles Police Department officer who was killed in the crash of a Metrolink train is carried from the wreckage in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles shortly after 10 p.m. Friday.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

Earlier wreck

The worst train wreck in Los Angeles history occurred Jan. 22, 1956, when a Santa Fe train from Los Angeles to San Diego lurched off a curve near Los Angeles River, killing 30 people and injuring 130.

LOS ANGELES – Metrolink officials said Saturday that an engineer on their commuter train that collided head-on Friday with a freight train – killing at least 24 people and critically injuring dozens more – ignored a red light signal telling him to stop.

Had the engineer obeyed the signal, the accident would not have occurred, said Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell.

“We want to be honest in our appraisal,” she said Saturday at the scene of the crash, as workers used heavy machinery to untangle the twisted remains of the most damaged passenger car.

“Barring any information from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), we believe our engineer failed to stop and that was the cause of the accident,” she said. “Of course, it is your worst fear that this could happen, that the ability for human error to occur could come into the scenario.”

Tyrrell said the engineer, whom she did not identify, was a subcontractor with Veolia Transportation and a former Amtrak employee. She believed that he had been killed in the crash but could not confirm the death. She did not know why safety measures and controls along the way, including communication with dispatchers, failed.

Authorities said that the number of dead found in the wreckage had reached 24 and was likely to rise.

Hope for a miracle held out throughout the early morning, even though authorities said the last survivor was pulled from the wreckage before sunset Friday, just hours after the commuter train carrying 225 people collided with a Union Pacific freight train on a sharp curve in Chatsworth.

Chatsworth is a district in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.

“They are pulling things apart very carefully because, if there is a miracle, they don’t want to undo it,” said Lt. John Romero, of the Los Angeles Police Department, shortly after 7:30 a.m.

But by 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials conceded that it was unlikely anyone else had survived.

“Rescue workers are continuing to work in an extrication effort, but we believe that the likelihood of anyone being alive in wreckage at this point is very remote,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Mario Rueda.

Ed Winter, assistant chief of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, said rescuers had finished searching the top tier of the first double-decker car, which took the brunt of the collision. But work remained on the bottom level, he said.

Families of eight of the deceased have been notified, he added.

With so many survivors critically injured – Los Angeles Fire Department counted about 40 – more deaths were anticipated.

One body, possibly that of the freight train conductor, was found as heavy machinery pulled apart the trains. The body was pulled from the cab of the toppled Union Pacific engine as firefighters shielded it from photographers, then shrouded it in a sheet before carrying it to a coroner’s trailer.

In some instances, authorities said, they have been unable to identify victims, including two women who were taken to hospitals, Rueda said. Rescue teams had worked frantically overnight. More than 135 people were injured in one of the worst train crashes in Southern California history.

Authorities said Saturday that about 100 people were taken to hospitals – 60 by ambulance and 40 by helicopter. All 12 trauma centers in Los Angeles County received patients, authorities said.

Mobile units from the coroner’s, police, sheriff and fire departments remained in place at midmorning on the campus of Chatsworth Hills Academy, a private school adjacent to the crash site. As the rescue-and-recovery effort continued, NTSB officials arrived to investigate the crash.

Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Steve Ruda told the Associated Press that during the night teams used hydraulic jacks to keep the most badly damaged passenger car from falling over and other specialized rescue equipment to gently pull apart the metal. The goal was to eliminate every piece of metal and gradually work down into the passenger spaces.

On Friday, Los Angeles City Fire Capt. John Virant described the scene as “total destruction … chaos.”

“They are in there removing dead bodies that are lying on top of survivors,” Virant said. In the front train carriage, “it was as if somebody had just taken all the seats and thrown them in there.”

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