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4 Years Later, Metrolink Crash May Have Claimed Another Victim

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CHATSWORTH (CBSLA.com) — Wednesday marks the four-year anniversary of the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth that claimed the lives of 25 people and injured more than a hundred others.

CBS2’s Leyla Gulen spoke with some of the victims and their families about the crash and what life has been like since.

“It’s about the loneliest I think you could ever be, to not have the final goodbye, to not have the closure,” said Simi Valley resident Jenny Fuller, who lost her husband, Walt, in the crash.

Her daughter, Kelly Loftis, said she wishes her father could have met his first grandson.

“What’s been even more painful is to see the things in the last four years that he hasn’t been here for,” Loftis said.

Fuller and dozens of other families affected by the crash have spent the past few years testifying against Metrolink and Veolia in court. The crash is believed to have been caused by Veolia engineer, Robert Sanchez, who was texting just seconds before impact.

“It was difficult to go before a judge and try to explain to somebody what your dad is worth in dollars.”

The companies paid a $200-million settlement to the victims and their families. It was the maximum amount a railroad industry can pay to victims of a single accident, according to a 1997 law called the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act.

Simi Valley Congressman Elton Gallegly says the law is antiquated. He has been leading the charge to increase the cap to align with today’s cost of living.

“Make no mistake about it, the cost of living was a big part of it, and it was on the table and it was discussed, but they continued to come back to us and say, ‘We still believe these numbers are good today,’” Gallegly said.

Metrolink and Veolia are two of the groups that have lobbied against increasing the cap.

“I think our focus has been getting victims the maximum amount of compensation, as quickly as possible. The $200 million is the max allowed by law. Now, if Congress can change the cap, that’s something Congress has the power to do,” said Keith Millhouse, a Metrolink board member who also serves on the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

California Senator Diane Feinstein said that the companies involved should have given more.

“Candidly, Veolia was very unsympathetic. I’ve written them letters. I’ve asked them to help more,” Feinstein said.

“I think the railroad industry has to understand that where they have culpability, you have to raise the liability, the senator said.

Veolia denies liability, and claims the crash was due to equipment malfunction and not a single text.

But, nothing can change what happened to the victims of Metrolink 111 — like Frank Kohler, a former critical care nurse.

“My head was split open. I think the damage to my head, the mental changes that took place, were the most devastating to me,” Kohler said.

And, while the injuries remain, casualties continue to mount.

CBS2 spoke to crash victim Curtis Whitney last year at a Metrolink crash support group.

“You know, you talk to everyone about it, and doesn’t hit home with everyone, but when you talk to everyone here it hits home, you know,” Whitney said.

Just two months after that interview, the 27-year-old died from a morphine overdose.

Maria Arnold lost her husband of 53 years in the crash. Dennis Arnold was a Korean War veteran.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful, healthy man. And, all of a sudden, you never see him again,” Arnold said.

Now, four years later, we asked survivors whether the Metrolink/Veolia settlement was enough — “In no possible way,” said Kohler, who received $600,000 of the settlement.

“The judge felt monetary awards should have been larger in aggregate, and that’s for everyone,” Kohler said.

For crash victim, Mike Wiederkehr, he places blame squarely on Congress.

“You have senators and congressmen from California, one out of 49 states. There’s not another congressional representative with any interest in getting legislation out of committee,” Wiederkehr said.

Congressman Gallegly said he appealed to Veolia Tuesday, asking they to at least cover the “real damages” caused by the tragedy.

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