September 16, 2008 / 1:38 AM / 11 years ago

Text messaging figures in L.A. train wreck probe

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Investigators of a Los Angeles train wreck that killed 25 people are looking into reports that an engineer blamed for missing a stop signal light may have been distracted by text messaging moments before the crash, officials said on Monday.

A Metrolink commuter train and a freight train collided in the Chatsworth area en route from Union Station to Oxnard, September 12, 2008. Over 300 firefighters are working to douse flames and rescue victims, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. Numerous injuries and fatalities have been reported in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas

Three days after a Metrolink commuter train plowed head-on into a Union Pacific freight locomotive, the probe focused on operation of trackside warning signals and whether the Metrolink engineer may have failed to heed them.

Some 135 people were injured in the crash, more than 40 of them critically, in the deadliest U.S. rail tragedy in 15 years.

A local TV station, KCBS, reported that a teenage train enthusiast claimed to have received a cell phone text message from the commuter train engineer about a minute before the collision.

The National Transportation Safety Board is seeking to obtain cell phone records of the teenager and the engineer, said Kitty Higgins, a member of the board dispatched to the scene. The engineer, Robert Martin Sanchez, 46, died in the wreck. His cell phone has not been found, Higgins said.

NTSB officials have spoken to two teenage boys and their families, “and they’ve been fully cooperative,” she added. But she declined to elaborate on those conversations.

“They’re two young teenage boys who love trains, apparently rode the train and knew the engineer,” Higgins told Reuters. “And there’s some issue about whether they were texting with him, and that’s what we’re trying to track down.”

A text message that appeared to have been sent about a minute before the crash by a person identified on the receiving cell phone as “Rob Sanchez Metro” said: “Yea ... usually @ Camarillo,” KCBS sister station KCAL reported on Monday.

Railroad operating rules bar engineers from using cell phones and other electronic devices, or even having them within reach, while driving a train, a Metrolink spokesman said.

A Metrolink spokeswoman said on Saturday, the day after the accident, that the engineer was at fault because he failed to stop at a red light. But NTSB and railroad union officials said it was premature to draw such a conclusion.

Computer records of track warning signals showed they were working and that the last one before the crash was displaying a red light as the commuter train passed, Higgins said. But investigators were physically inspecting the signals on Monday to determine if they were functioning properly.

The Metrolink train passed through four warning lights as it neared the freight train. The crash occurred just beyond a stretch of the main rail line where the commuter train usually stops to wait for the freight train to pass it on a side rail.

The Metrolink engineer and the conductor, who rides near the rear of train, normally call each other by radio to confirm signals the engineer sees.

Audio recordings of their transmissions gave no indication that the two exchanged information about the last two signals passed before the wreck, but investigators had not ruled out a radio communication disruption of some kind, Higgins said.

The conductor was seriously injured in the wreck and has yet to be interviewed, she said.

Investigators also will look into the possibility that the engineer may suddenly have been stricken ill, or that a glare from the sun may have obscured his view of the signals.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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