LOS ANGELES — Federal investigators plan to subpoena the cell phone records of the engineer who is said to have been exchanging text messages in the minutes before his commuter train ran through a red signal and smashed into a freight train here Friday, killing 25 people.
Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, said Sunday that the agency would subpoena the records and also question the young men who told KCBS-TV that they had taken part in an exchange of text messages with the engineer just before the crash.
Whether the engineer, Robert Sanchez, who was killed, was distracted is among the bevy of questions investigators are seeking to answer. Others include whether the three-car Metrolink train and track equipment were functioning properly and what role dispatchers controlling train traffic might have played.
In the deadliest train accident in the country in 15 years, the commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train during rush hour Friday near a residential area of the San Fernando Valley. The crash, which also injured 135 people, nearly obliterated the front car of the commuter train and trapped the living and the dead for hours.
Officials at Metrolink have said the engineer passed through a red signal without stopping, probably causing the accident. But federal investigators cautioned against jumping to conclusions and predicted that the investigation could span many months.
Why the two trains were on the same track heading toward each other at about 40 miles per hour has puzzled officials. The claim of the text message exchange is among the more sensational factors officials are investigating.
KCBS-TV reports Saturday quoted a group of young railroad buffs as saying they had a friendship with the engineer and displayed messages they said came from him immediately before the crash.
The last message, at 4:22 p.m., came about a minute before the crash.
One of the young men, Evan Morrison, would not comment Sunday and the others could not be reached or did not answer e-mail messages.
Higgins, of the safety board, has said reports of a driver distracted by a cell phone had proved false this year in the case of a fatal trolley accident in Boston.
The state chairman of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the union representing Sanchez, said it remained to be determined why he would pass a red signal, whether a health problem disabled him or whether in fact the signal was red, as Metrolink insists.
"He was not crazy, I can tell you that," said the union official, Tim Smith. Smith described Sanchez as conscientious about safety, saying he complained to the union about missing or broken signal flags along his route.