- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

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.

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.

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.”

About 135 people were injured in the crash.

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,” he said. “The bodies were entwined with the wreckage.”

Rescue crews recovered two data recorders Saturday from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.

There were no new reports of fatalities from hospitals Sunday, and the scene was cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the county coroner’s office.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park.

The commuter train, heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and one conductor when it collided with the Union Pacific freight, which had a crew of three. The impact rammed the Metrolink engine backward, jamming it deep into the first passenger car.

It was the deadliest passenger train crash since Sept. 22, 1993, when Amtrak’s Sunset Limited plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala., moments after the trestle was damaged by a towboat; 47 people were killed.

Thomas Watkins, Amy Taxin, Daisy Nguyen, Christina Hoag, Greg Risling, Justin Pritchard, James Beltran, John Rogers and Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.

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