LOS ANGELES – Federal authorities investigating why a commuter train engineer ran through a red signal and into an oncoming freight train have confirmed that he was text messaging while working on the day of the fatal collision.
The revelation came a day before the California Public Utilities Commission was scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposed emergency order banning the use of cell phones while operating a train. Commission President Michael R. Peevey, who is seeking the order, said some railroads have such policies but they're widely ignored.
"Our order would make it the law and we'll go after violators," Peevey said earlier in the week.
Southern California's Metrolink prohibits rail workers from using cell phones on the job, but there is no current federal or state regulation regarding the use of cell phones by railroad employees.
The National Transportation Safety Board requested the cell phone records of Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez after two teenage train fans said they had exchanged text messages with him shortly before the train collided head-on Friday with a Union Pacific freight train in suburban Chatsworth. The wreck killed 25 people, including Sanchez, and injured more than 130.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, the NTSB did not say how many messages were found in the records or if any texting occurred just before the collision. However, the teens told KCBS-TV last week that they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. — a minute before the collision.
Messages left with NTSB spokesman Terry Williams were not returned. Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca declined to comment.
In 2003, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration regulate the use of cell phones after finding that a coal train engineer's phone use contributed to a May 2002 accident in which two freight trains collided head-on near Clarendon, Texas. The coal train engineer was killed and the conductor and engineer of the other train were critically injured.
Members of the FRA's railroad safety advisory committee have been considering restricting electronic device usage in the locomotive cab as it develops new safety rules, agency spokesman Steven Kulm said. He said the group discussed the matter in meetings earlier in the year, and plans to meet next week in Chicago.
"We've been working on this issue before this event happened," Kulm said.
The NTSB has determined Sanchez did not apply the brakes before the collision and ran a red light that could have prevented it. The agency said the tracks and signals were working properly and that human error was to blame.
Meanwhile, fire officials released a few recordings Wednesday night of 911 calls made after the crash. Hundreds of callers described a chaotic scene.
"We have a whole bunch of people now bleeding and on the floor," one man told a dispatcher in a trembling voice after calling 911.
Some callers seemed calm, others frantic.
"Please hurry!" one person urged the dispatcher. "People are bleeding and hurt here."
As survivors emerged from the wreckage, they saw the first passenger car that crumpled under the force of the Metrolink engine. "I bet you're going to have a lot of fatalities there," one caller said.
Also Wednesday, Metrolink voted at an emergency meeting to create a Victims Assistance Fund for public and private donations to families of crash victims, and a $200,000 Temporary Assistance Fund to speed payment of costs for the families including funeral expenses, Oaxaca said.
The Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which runs Metrolink, called the closed session partly to discuss anticipated litigation as a result of the collision.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa removed board member Anthony Bejarano Wednesday and replaced him with Metropolitan Transit Authority Director Richard Katz, who is closer to the mayor. Villaraigosa also replaced one of the board's alternates.
The board also approved a unanimous motion to support legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein requiring the installation of technology to prevent train crashes.
Feinstein, a Democrat, hoped to get Congress to pass the requirement for so-called positive train control before recessing at the end of next week.