A 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.
After nearly a day of sifting through the mangled remains of a Metrolink commuter train that collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train Friday, authorities said Saturday afternoon that they'd finished the grim search for victims. About 135 people were injured.
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 the collision 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,” she said.
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. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.
“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 continued, “but this is what we believe happened. We believe it was our engineer who failed to stop at the signal.”
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.
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.
The 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.