This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.
It's been three weeks now since the disastrous train collision in Chatsworth that killed 24 passengers and the engineer who was driving the Metrolink train.
Those three weeks have been an eternity, of course, for the families affected. And for the dozens of victims who are still recovering from injuries.
I'd guess that for the rescuers, paramedics and Good Samaritans who jumped in to help save people, their memories of the scene -- and reliving it all through the media -- have not exactly been a piece of cake either.
But compared to what we've come to expect when the government starts to investigate a big accident like this, we've learned a lot in a short time about what probably caused the crash.
Rather than shut down the flow of information, the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington has rather quickly confirmed the answers to some key questions.
We know that, yes, the red signal lights telling engineer Robert Sanchez to stop his Metrolink train were working. He should have pulled over to let the southbound freight train pass, as happens every day on that stretch of track.
Instead, he pulled out of the Chatsworth station headed north and opened the throttle to 40 miles an hour. Sanchez never hit the brakes before slamming into the freight descending out of Santa Susana Pass.
More disturbingly, the NTSB confirmed what some teenager train watchers told Channel 2 that horrible weekend. The kids said they had been exchanging text messages with Engineer Sanchez in the minutes leading up to the crash.
Their report met with initial skepticism, although the teenagers I watched were credible and, as fans of the engineer, had no reason to make up the story.
As it turns out, phone records show that Sanchez was indeed busy texting during the crucial minutes when the stop lights were missed.
He received a last text message about 80 seconds before the crash.
He sent his final reply 22 seconds before the NTSB thinks the collision occurred. It's not much of a leap to assume that the distraction of text messaging took the engineer's attention away from the tracks, and may well be to blame for the whole tragedy.
Sanchez apparently made a practice of texting while running Metrolink trains. On his morning shift that day, in just over two hours, he sent 24 text messages.
The Metrolink agency and most other train operators claim that cell phone use is already forbidden. That's not too reassuring.
To its credit, the Federal Railroad Administration this week put out a press release saying the agency will impose a national ban on cell phone use by train operators.
“The consequences of inattentiveness and distraction,” says the agency, “are simply too catastrophic to be addressed at the operator or state level alone.”
And just to follow up on one other story we've talked about here recently – the effect of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the race for president.
It may have seemed like everyone you know was talking about last night's debate between Palin and Senator Joe Biden. And it did air on a plethora of TV channels.
Nationally, the ratings went through the roof – 45% of households tuned in, many more than watched Barack Obama and John McCain debate recently.
But here in Southern California, we apparently don't care that much. The LA metro area finished dead last among the 55 cities that Nielsen meters.
Going up against the Dodgers' playoff game may have had something to do with it. The Dodgers beat the Cubs handily -- with the best action coming during the debate.
But the debate ratings were much higher in Chicago. Chalk it up to the time zones: the debate began at 6 pm here, drive time in L.A.
Even so, the Dodgers can now clinch the series by winning tomorrow at home.
For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.
Banner image: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images