Officials probe whether engineer was text messaging
LOS ANGELES – A dispatcher tried to warn the engineer of a Metrolink commuter train that he was about to collide with a freight train, but the call came too late, rail officials investigating the crash that killed 25 people said Sunday.
The dispatcher reached the conductor in the rear of the train, but by then it had already crashed into the oncoming Union Pacific engine at 40 mph, Metrolink officials said.
The engineer was killed in the accident, the nation’s deadliest rail disaster in 15 years.
Metrolink said the engineer ran a red signal, but federal investigators said it could be a year before they determine a cause.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday it was looking into a report that the engineer may have been text messaging around the time of the crash.
Two days after the crash, men wearing green and orange safety vests walked up and down the tracks Sunday in an early morning fog, while others snapped pictures and climbed inside the wrecked shell of the front passenger car.
A teenager told CBS2-TV that he had exchanged a brief text message with the engineer shortly before the crash. The Los Angeles station said the teen was among a group of youths who befriended the engineer and asked him questions about his work. The station showed an interview of the teen holding a cell phone with a text message apparently signed by the engineer and dated 4:22 p.m. Friday, shortly before the crash.
Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said before the report aired that she would find it “unbelievable” that an engineer would be text messaging while operating a train.
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said he couldn’t confirm reports that the engineer, whose name was not released, had been text messaging.
“We’re going to look into that, anything that can help us find the cause of this accident,” he said.
Earlier, NTSB member Kitty Higgins said similar reports in other accident investigations turned out to be inaccurate “so I want to be very, very careful about it.”
Some 135 were injured in the crash.
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 – 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 – and they’re dead in an instant.”
Keith Millhouse, vice chairman of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority’s board of directors and a Moorpark city councilman, said he plans to take the train today in an effort to restore the public’s trust in Metrolink.
“It’s unfair to say it’s an unsafe operation,” Millhouse said.
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