Nightmare crash reenacted in reverse

CHATSWORTH, Calif. Metrolink's train #111 dropped off passengers before heading north to Moorpark Tuesday afternoon. Train #111 was involved in Friday's collision with a freight train that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators recreated Friday's train collision on Tuesday. This time, the trains were traveling much slower and stopped in the middle of the sharp curve in the tracks before they collided.

NTSB Board Member Kitty Higgins rode the freight first and then later the Metrolink commuter. She said the purpose was to gauge when the two engineers saw each other.

"I was told that it was four seconds from the time that the UP [Union Pacific freight car] engineer saw the Metrolink train till the collision," said Higgins. "There was a one-second reaction, and then at two seconds, he pulled an emergency switch, a red bar that he pulls, puts the train into emergency, which essentially applies the brakes."

Higgins said the freight train coming slightly downhill at 41 miles per hour had no chance to stop. And the Metrolink engineer, Robert Sanchez, never applied his brakes.

"My understanding is he did not. Did not," said Higgins.

Higgins said Monday's test of one trackside signal at Topanga on the tracks leading up to the crash site was working properly and was not obstructed. That's critically important to the investigation.

"For the Metrolink engineer, that's the signal that would have told him to stop," said Higgins. "He was not supposed to go past that signal."

Higgins said after failing to heed the red stop signal just before the switch that was set to move the freight train onto a side track, Robert Sanchez rolled his train through the closed switch, bending its control bars open, something he should have felt.

"I said, 'Would it feel like a "rumble strip,"' and somebody said 'Yeah, it probably would feel like a rumble strip.' That was something I could relate to," said Higgins.

The NTSB has issued a subpoena for Sanchez's phone records to find out whether the Metrolink engineer Sanchez was distracted by young train buffs who had been text-messaging him before the crash.

Metrolink has a rule that bans its operators from using cell phones while on the job, but California state law does not. The president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) wants to change that. The commission is set to vote Thursday on an emergency order that would ban cell phone use by train operators.

But instead of distracted, since he apparently ignored so many warnings, could Sanchez have been incapacitated?

"Those are all good questions, those are the questions we're asking," said Higgins. "Right now, we don't have the answers."

An autopsy on Robert Sanchez's body has already been completed. Officials say it will take many weeks before tests that stem from that autopsy are completed, many weeks before those questions can be answered.

In the meantime, the NTSB is planning to interview the train's conductor, who is still hospitalized.

"Part of his responsibility, in addition to assisting the passengers, is to coordinate with the engineer in confirming the observation of signals. So we will be talking to him about, I'm sure, many things related to the trip, but a particular interest will be what signals he may have seen the day of the accident," said Higgins.

Audio recordings from the train's "black box" data recorder show the engineer and the conductor were communicating verbal checks about signals along the track, but there was a period of radio silence right before the wreck.

- Get information on railway closures by visiting the Metrolink Web site here.

The Los Angeles County Coroner's office released a list of people killed in the crash.

  • Christopher Aiken, 38
  • Dennis Arnold, 75
  • Dean Lafoy Brower, 51
  • Alan Lloyd Buckley, 59
  • Yi Chao, 71
  • Spree Desha, 35
  • Walter Arney Fuller, 54
  • Ronald Grace, 55
  • Michael Hammersly, 45
  • Jacob Hefter, 18
  • Kari Hsieh, no age given
  • Paul Long, no age given
  • Roger Spacey, 60
  • Ernest Stephen Kish II, 47
  • Gregory Lintner, 48
  • Manuel Macias, 31
  • Aida Magdaleno, 19
  • Beverly Mosely, 57
  • Charles Peck, 58
  • Howard Barry Pompel, 69
  • Donna Ramata, 49
  • Robert Sanchez, 46
  • Doyle Jay Souser, 56
  • Maria Elenea Villalobos, 18
  • Atul Vyas, 20
  • The City of Los Angeles announced a new public hotline number is now available for those impacted by Friday's Metrolink train accident. That number is (800) 854-7771, select option 2. The new hotline is staffed 24 hours by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. Families and friends can get information about the whereabouts of a loved one involved in the accident. In addition, survivors of the accident, their families or anyone having difficulty in dealing with this tragedy can get referrals and resources for crisis counseling.

    The L.A. County Department of Mental Health is offering free counseling for people affected by the deadly Metrolink train crash. Two centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning Tuesday.

    San Fernando Valley Mental Health Center
    10605 Balboa Blvd., Ste. 100
    Granada Hills, CA 91344
    (818) 832-2400

    West Valley Mental Health Center
    7621 Canoga Ave.
    Canoga Park, CA 91304
    (818) 598-6900

    Eyewitness News Reporters Rob Hayes and Gene Gleeson contributed to this report.


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