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Portrait of Metrolink engineer emerges

September 16, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Robert Sanchez was the Metrolink engineer at the controls of train #111 when it collided with a Union Pacific freight train. Sanchez was a train enthusiast, a loner, and a man with a short criminal record.Federal investigators are examining every facet of the Chatsworth crash, including the role of Engineer Robert Martin Sanchez, 46, currently under a microscope. The notion that he was text-messaging teenage train buffs sounds absurd to his friend and former colleague, Pilar Castaneda.

"I was shocked," said Castaneda. "He was always careful."

Castaneda worked with Sanchez when they were with Amtrak in Boston 10 years ago. In Los Angeles they regularly met to try out restaurants and watch football games.

Sanchez was preparing to take a vacation to Cleveland next week. Unknown is why he chose that destination. It is the headquarters for his union.

Timothy L. Smith, an official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, released a statement: "Robert used to call me all the time about safety issues. He was very proactive, very safety conscious. He was a fine, upstanding man and a really good engineer."

While investigators probe his personnel file, there are reports of some off-duty trouble. Sanchez was accused of stealing video game consoles in San Bernardino County in 2002, said his defense attorney Wilson Wong. Sanchez pleaded guilty to misdemeanor grand theft and was sentenced to three months in jail, which he was allowed to serve on weekends. He also was cited for three traffic violations between 2001 and 2005.

Oliver Amelsberg was his neighbor in La Crescenta, one of the few who spoke to him.

"We always enjoyed each other's company, and I enjoyed his dogs. He had four dogs. I don't know what else to say, really, but he was a fine man, a fine man," said Amelsberg.

Neighbors called Sanchez a loner. His friend Pilar Castaneda says it was his schedule that caused that. Working sometimes from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., resting in between commutes. Fatigue, he speculates, could have been a factor.

"That's a long time. It's 15 hours, 16 hours, for a human being just to be at work. You're talking about long hours just thinking about work," said Castaneda.


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