Federal investigators returned Monday morning to the scene of the Metrolink train crash near Chatsworth that killed at least 25 people and injured more than 130 others on Friday. Of the injured survivors, about 45 remained hospitalized with serious injuries on Monday.
Invesigators are ensuring that a warning signal was working properly. They also said they would seek cellphone records to find out whether the engineer was texting. The crash was the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years..
Federal investigators said audio recordings from a commuter train are missing required verbal safety checks between the engineer and the conductor in the seconds before the train collided with a freight engine, killing more than two dozen. Kitty Higgins, a board member for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the recordings show the engineer and conductor called out and confirmed light signals along the route, but the tapes are missing calls for the last two lights the train passed just before the fiery wreck. She said the last communication was recorded as the train passed a flashing yellow light. The audio record went silent as the train passed a solid yellow light and then a red signal, which indicated the approach of another engine.
Monday morning rail commuters rode free Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses around the crash scene. The buses will be available until the track is repaired, which could be as soon as Monday afternoon.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greeted commuters at the Chatsworth Metrolink station at 6 a.m. and rode with them to Union Station to show rail service is safe.
Ventura County Line train No. 111 crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train shortly before 4:23 p.m. Friday on a curving section of track south of the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway and east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
Officials said 225 people were aboard; 25 died in the crash and 134 were injured, 44 critically.
Saturday, Metrolink's top spokesperson, Denise Tyrrell, took the unusual step of saying the agency was responsible for the crash because the engineer ran a red light and did not stop to let the freight train pass. But the NTSB and a union representing railroad employees said it was too soon to jump to any conclusions about the cause of the crash.
Tyrrell quit her job Monday in a dispute over how facts about Friday's deadly train crash were made public. She said she had spoken with Metrolink's chief executive and was authorized to release the basic facts of the investigation before she announced in an impromptu news conference on Saturday that the Metrolink driver ran a red light on the line shared by Union Pacific freighters. But she said Metrolink board members tried to back away from statement, saying she'd spoken without authorization.
Was Metrolink Engineer Texting?
The Metrolink engineer, identified by friends as 46-year-old Robert Sanchez, may have been text-messaging some teenage train enthusiasts just before the collision that killed 25 people, according to a CBS report. Investigators are seeking cellular telephone records to confirm that account.
But NTSB investigators said it could take up to a year to determine the cause of the crash, and a union spokesman told the Los Angeles Times it was premature to blame Sanchez for the crash. Sanchez had worked for Amtrak and, more recently, for a private company, Veolia Transportation, that provides Metrolink with engineers.
National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Kitty Higgins in a news conference on Sunday night addressed CBS2's report that the engineer sent a text message about one minute before the train collision.
"We did not find a cell phone for the engineer," she said.
But Higgins said investigators will be able to get records of any text messages from the phone company.
Officials said there may have been other factors affecting Sanchez; they said he might have had a heart attack or stroke.
NTSB News Conference
A Metrolink dispatcher tried to warn an engineer that he had run a red light and was about to crash with a freight train near Chatsworth on Friday afternoon, but the warning went out too late, Higgins said in the Sunday night news conference.
Higgins said that by the time the computer system showed an irregularity, the collision had already happened and the dispatcher had received a call from the conductor reporting the accident.
"All (the dispatcher) knows is that the system is working until he knows the system isn't working," Higgins said. "It's happening in a matter of seconds really."
The NTSB investigators are not only looking into whether the engineer may have been distracted, but also into potential faulty equipment, missed signals, as well as the data contained on event recorders recovered from both trains.
Higgins also made it clear the train, traveling 42 mph, went through a red signal, but investigators still need to confirm that the data was recorded properly.
"What happened was that we know now that this signal was red and that the train, the Metrolink train, went through the signal, did not observe the red signal and essentially forced open this section of the switch," Higgins said.
"We do know that he went through the red signal. We do know the switch was closed," Higgins said. "It's never one factor. I call it the perfect storm. What are all those factors that came together at this time to cause this accident? …We work very hard not to jump to conclusions here."
Higgins said that Positive Train Control, which can override control of the train, could have prevented this crash.
"We've made this recommendation for over 30 years," Higgins said.
She said the road barriers to using the technology are "the will and the wallet."
"People make mistakes. The question is, 'How can we use technology to essentially provide a safety net?'" Higgins said.
Had positive train control been implemented, if the train had gone through the red light, it would have stopped, she said.