Image: Rescue workers remove the freight train engine that collided head-on with a commuter train
Gus Ruelas  /  Reuters
Rescue workers remove the freight train engine that collided head-on with a commuter train in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles.
updated 9/13/2008 10:47:11 PM ET 2008-09-14T02:47:11

A commuter train engineer who ran a stop signal was blamed Saturday for the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years, a wreck that killed 25 people and left such a mass of smoldering, twisted metal that it took nearly a day to recover all the bodies.

A preliminary investigation found that "it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and that was the probable cause" of Friday's collision with a freight train in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said. She said she believes the engineer, whose name was not released, is dead.

"When two trains are in the same place at the same time somebody's made a terrible mistake," said Tyrrell, who was shaking and near tears as she spoke with reporters.

Authorities later announced that the effort to recover bodies from the Metrolink train's crushed front car had ended, with the death toll at 24. It rose to 25 when a 50-year-old man transported to a hospital from the wreck died.

"It was a very, very difficult operation," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of the search for bodies. "It was like peeling an onion to find all the victims there."

'Like an accordion'
A total of 135 people were injured, with 81 transported to hospitals in serious or critical condition. There was no overall condition update available Saturday, but a telephone survey of five hospitals found nine of 34 patients still critical. Many were described as having crush injuries.

Firefighter Searcy Jackson III, a 20-year veteran and one of the first to pull bodies from the wreckage, said he had never seen such devastation. The 50-year-old said his team pulled one living passenger from the train and cut the mangled metal to remove about a half-dozen bodies.

"The metal was pushed together like an accordion," Jackson said.

Firefighters who extricated the dead from the wreck were rotated in and out of the scene to prevent emotional exhaustion.

"There are some things we are trained for, there are some things I don't care what kind of training you have, you don't always prepare for," fire Capt. Armando Hogan said. "This situation, particularly early on, with people inside the train, with the injuries, and with people moaning and crying and screaming, it was a traumatic experience."

'Our engineer failed to stop'
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. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass.

"Even if the train is on the main track, it must go through a series of signals and each one of the signals must be obeyed," Tyrrell said. "What we believe happened, barring any new information from the NTSB, is we believe that our engineer failed to stop ... and that was the cause of the accident.

"We don't know how the error happened," she said, adding that Metrolink determined the cause by reviewing dispatch records and computers.

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said her agency, which is leading the probe, is waiting to complete its investigation before making any statements about the cause of the accident. It hopes to complete its final report within a year.

Higgins said rescue crews on Saturday recovered two data recorders 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.

The Metrolink 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, with a crew of three, about 4:30 p.m. Friday. It is common in California for freight and commuter trains to use one track.

The crash forced the Metrolink engine well back into the first passenger car, and both toppled over. Two other passenger cars remained upright. The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.

Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said his firefighters had never seen such carnage.

"It's the worst feeling in the world because you know what you're going to find," said fire Capt. Alex Arriola, who had crawled into the bottom of the smashed passenger car. "You have to put aside the fact that it's someone's husband, daughter or friend."

Police set up what they called a unification center at a local high school to try to connect worried people with information about friends or relatives who they believed were aboard the train.

Families of eight of the dead had been notified and two women who were pronounced dead at hospitals were unidentified, coroner's Assistant Chief Ed Winter said.

Victims identified
Authorities released the names of 20 of the victims Saturday. They include Los Angeles police Officer Spree Desha, 35, of Simi Valley, who was riding the train home.

Veronica Gonzalez spent a frantic night and day searching local hospitals for her niece Maria Elena Villalobos before learning she was among the dead.

"She was just the sweetest, kindest, always-trying-to-help-everyone person you would ever meet," Gonzalez said of the 18-year-old, who had just started her first semester at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles.

Tyrrell, the Metrolink spokeswoman, said the engineer had driven the agency's trains since 1996 and worked for a subcontractor, Veolia, since 1998. She said she didn't know if the engineer ever had any previous problems operating trains or had any disciplinary issues.

Veolia issued a statement Saturday calling the collision a "tragic incident." The company said it is cooperating with NTSB's investigation.

Video: Gov. Schwarzenegger surveys Calif. train collision Ray Garcia, a train conductor with Metrolink until 2006, said he knew the engineer involved in the crash for nine years and called him qualified and talented. He declined to name the engineer.

"I'm very sad that that happened," Garcia said. "It's terrible."

Garcia said he knows the stretch of track where the collision occurred and believes engineers are warned twice with yellow lights before reaching a red light at the end of a siding.

Questions about signals, fatigue
Tim Smith, state chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a union representing engineers and conductors, said issues that could factor into the crash investigation could be faulty signals along the track or engineer fatigue.

He said engineers in California are limited to 12 hours a day running a train, although that can be broken up over a stretch as long as 18 hours.

It was not immediately clear how many hours the train's engineer had worked.

Until Friday, Metrolink's worst disaster was on Jan. 26, 2005, in suburban Glendale, where a man parked a gasoline-soaked SUV on railroad tracks. A Metrolink train struck the SUV and derailed, striking another Metrolink train traveling the other way, killing 11 people and injuring about 180 others. Juan Alvarez was convicted this year of murder for causing the crash.

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

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Video: Heroic tales from the Calif. train collision

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