SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) - Victims of a Southern California commuter train crash that killed 25 people and injured more than 100 others on Monday confronted executives from the transportation company that accepted liability for the 2008 disaster.
About 60 people attended a meeting at Simi Valley City Hall to face for the first time three executives from Veolia Transportation. Some showed them photos of their loved ones killed when a Metrolink train collided head-on with a freight train and some talked about the injuries that permanently altered their lives.
The executives sat silently, which was a condition they set for attending the closed-door meeting, according to those who were inside.
"They just listened, they did not respond," said Claudia Souser, whose husband Doyle was among those killed in the crash. "But you can read it in their faces, it was shocking to hear some of the stories."
The executives, which included the chief operating officer of Veolia's rail division, the company's general counsel and its chief of communications and marketing, agreed to attend the meeting days after a federal judge approved a $200 million settlement fund for the victims and released Veolia and Metrolink from further liability.
Veolia is the parent company of private contractor Connex Railroad, which at the time supplied engineers for Metrolink.
The meeting was organized by Rep. Elton Gallegly who said that despite Veolia's request to not answer questions at Monday's meeting, he believed it was important for the company executives to meet the victims eye to eye.
For some, the meeting brought back raw memories as they met other victims for the first time and heard about how other people suffered.
Kumar Shankar, 66, of Simi Valley, was in the first car that experienced the most impact. He broke all of his ribs, his nose, his lung was punctured, his shoulder was shattered and he suffered nerve damage in the crash. He said he hung onto his seat and was dangling for 45 minutes before he was rescued.
"I'm just so happy to be alive. I just got lucky, somebody was looking after me," a tearful Shankar said.
Shankar said he had not had a chance to directly address Veolia executives, but hearing testimony from others was enough to bring him to tears. He criticized the executives for "hiding behind the company and this law," referring to the liability cap set by Congress.
"They seem to think that they don't have to do anything because nobody can touch them," Shankar said. "I just want them to do the right thing."
Federal investigators believe the commuter train's engineer, Robert Sanchez, was texting when he ran a red light and collided with a Union Pacific freight train in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley on Sept. 12, 2008. Sanchez was among those who died.
The $200 settlement was the largest of its kind for a passenger train wreck and reflects the maximum amount set by Congress in 1997 to help keep passenger rail systems operating when faced with major lawsuits.
Gallegly recently introduced a bill proposing to raise the liability cap to $275 million because he thinks the current settlement amount won't cover all the victims' medical expenses and properly compensate children and spouses of those killed.
He said he didn't think the bill will go anywhere, given the judge's decision.
"I want to give Veolia an opportunity to stand up to the plate and hopefully say, Look we're going to be there, we're concerned about the families, we hope the costs won't go over $200 million but if it does, we're prepared to do what's right," Gallegly said.
Metrolink and Connex filed court papers in August accepting liability for the crash, though neither revealed how much each was paying into the fund. Metrolink is a five-county regional rail authority.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)