Surviving Metrolink crewman says track-side warning light was green

The only surviving crewman aboard a Metrolink train that slammed into a freight train in Chatsworth in September has told investigators that a track-side warning light just south of the crash site was green, his attorneys said Thursday.

Conductor Robert Heldenbrand told investigators that he saw the green signal from the depot just before the train pulled out of the station, said San Dimas attorney John Gilbert.

“He checked the platform prior to the [train] doors closing to make sure there were no more passengers. That’s when he observed the green light,” said Gilbert, who was with Heldenbrand when he was interviewed by investigators.

Heldenbrand’s account matches statements from three observers who say they saw that the light was green as the train left the Chatsworth station. After their comments appeared in The Times, the witnesses were interviewed by federal investigators.

But the conductor and the others contradict statements from Metrolink and the preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has said the commuter train ran a red light just before colliding with the Union Pacific train.

In an interview Thursday, Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the NSTB, said the agency stands by its earlier findings that the signal system was working properly at the time of the head-on collision.

Twenty-five people died and 135 were injured in the Sept. 12 crash.

The safety board has said that engineer Robert M. Sanchez sent and received dozens of text messages while on duty the day of the crash, including one just 22 seconds before impact.

Earlier this week, The Times also reported that investigators have found that the red light was not as bright as the yellow and green lights displayed by the track-warning signal. The reasons for the visibility difference -- and what, if any, role it played in the crash -- are part of the investigation, which will take months to complete.

Sanchez, who was killed in the collision, was supposed to stop Metrolink 111 at the red signal just before a switch mechanism intended to guide the freight train onto a side rail, investigators said.

Instead, Sanchez barreled over the switch at 42 mph, bending it badly, before slamming into the southbound freight carrier on a sharp curve about a quarter-mile farther, according to federal investigators. Heldenbrand’s statement raises the possibility that Sanchez may not have been entirely at fault for the crash.

But the NTSB, which is leading the probe, has said that three separate tests have confirmed that the signal system was working properly, and that the light was red.

Sanchez failed to heed two warning signals, investigators said. The first one, just before the Metrolink station, was yellow. It should have warned Sanchez to stop at the red light about a mile past the depot, according to investigators.

The final light was visible from the station when Sanchez was at the depot, investigators said.

After the crash, NTSB member Kitty Higgins said Heldenbrand told investigators that he did not communicate with Sanchez about the color of the last two lights.

The communication breakdown, Higgins told reporters, was an apparent violation of regulations requiring conductors and engineers to confirm to each other the colors of yellow or red lights. She said she didn’t know why the two men did not discuss the signals.

But Gilbert said Thursday that Heldenbrand told investigators that he and Sanchez did not call out the signals because they had a green light.

“There wouldn’t be any need to communicate,” Gilbert said.

Lopez and Connell are Times staff writers.