LA train crash death toll at 26
Officials reassure riders of safety as commuting resumes
By Jennifer Oldham, Steve Hymon and Ann M. Simmons
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LOS ANGELES — A 26th person who was in the Metrolink train collision died Monday, the Los Angeles County coroner's office said.
The news came as commuters returned to Southern California's rails after Friday's rush-hour accident.
Emergency crews found more victims early Saturday in the mangled wreckage of a commuter train that smashed head-on into a freight train, raising the death toll to 17. (AP Photo/ Hector Mata)
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Metrolink officials assured people that riding the train is still safer than navigating local freeways.
Late Monday, federal investigators said a signal light at the site of the crash is working normally and there were no obstructions that may have prevented the commuter train's engineer from seeing the red light.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced it has also requested cell phone records to investigate whether the Metrolink engineer, Robert Sanchez, was text messaging before his commuter train collided with a freight train last week. Two teenage train buffs who befriended him told KCBS-TV that they received a text message from him a minute before the crash.
Sanchez was among those killed.
The agency says the Metrolink train, which carried 220 people, rolled past stop signals at 42 miles per hour on Friday and forced its way onto a track with a Union Pacific freight.
Villaraigosa joined commuters Monday morning at the Chatsworth train station to reassure people that safety is Metrolink's first priority.
"I want to dispel any fears about taking the train," he said.
"Safety has to be our No. 1 concern. Taking the train is still the safest option for commuters."
The vice chairman of the Metrolink board, Keith Millhouse, joined Villaraigosa at the station. Millhouse, a councilman in the city of Moorpark, said he had friends aboard the Ventura County-bound train who were killed and others who were seriously injured.
"We will do everything possible to find out what happened and fix it," he said.
Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell resigned Monday after Metrolink board members said she spoke prematurely in saying Friday's crash was caused by an engineer's mistake.
And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on the chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee to hold an emergency hearing on the collision.
The Moorpark station, usually bustling with Ventura County commuters packing into crowded trains, was quieter and emptier Monday as temporary buses shuttled people to the Chatsworth station, where they would board the train.
"People are probably still in shock, staying home from work," said Lillian Ford, a supervisor for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "We were expecting more people, but there isn't. It's very calm."
The MTA provided eight buses Monday for commuters and had four more standing by, said George Trudeau, assistant transportation manager for the MTA in the San Fernando Valley.
"Usually, when things like this happen over the weekend, people make other arrangements. They have had two days to plan for it," Trudeau said.
On the empty platform at the Moorpark station, two makeshift memorials with flowers, candles and stuffed toys had been created for the crash victims, with handwritten names of the deceased.
Volunteers from the American Red Cross of Ventura County handed out leaflets to passengers boarding the bus, offering phone numbers to call for mental health counseling.
"Sometimes it will hit somebody later," said Mike Green, a Red Cross volunteer. "People get affected by these tragedies, and we just want to let them know counseling is available if they need it."
Los Angeles Times; Tribune news services contributed to this report