Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Fatalities up to 11
By Associated Press

GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) - A suicidal man parked his SUV on the railroad tracks and set off a crash of two commuter trains Wednesday that hurled passengers down the aisles and turned rail cars into smoking, twisted heaps of steel, authorities said. At least 11 people were killed and more than 180 injured.

The SUV driver got out at the last moment and survived.

The collision took place just before daybreak on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Employees at a Costco store rushed to the scene and pulled riders from the tipped-over double-deck cars before the flames reached them. Dazed passengers staggered from the wreckage, some limping. One elderly man on the train was covered in blood and soot, his legs and arms apparently broken.

"I heard a noise. It got louder and louder," said passenger Diane Brady, 56. "And next thing I knew the train tilted, everyone was screaming and I held onto a pole for dear life. I held on for what seemed like a week and a half it seemed. It was a complete nightmare."

Dozens of the injured were in critical condition, and more than 120 people were sent to hospitals in the nation's deadliest train accident in nearly six years. Killed were one woman and nine men, including sheriff's Deputy James Tutino, 47, whose flag-draped body was saluted by law officers and firefighters as it was carried from the wreckage.

Before his rescue, one trapped man apparently used his own blood to write a note on a seat bottom. Using the heart symbol, he wrote "I love my kids" and "I love Leslie." The man's identity was not known, but Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Rex Vilaubi said the man was alive when he was removed.

The wreck set in motion a huge rescue operation involving more than 300 firefighters, some of whom climbed ladders to reach the windows of the battered train cars. A triage center was set up in a parking lot, where the injured lay sprawled on color-colded mats _ red for those with severe injuries, green for those less seriously hurt.

Authorities said Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, of Compton, parked his sport utility vehicle on the tracks and got out before a Metrolink train smashed into the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The train then derailed and collided with another train going in the opposite direction. That train also jumped the tracks.

Alvarez was arrested and expected to be booked for investigation of a "homicide-related offense," said police Sgt. Tom Lorenz. Alvarez had also slashed his wrists and stabbed himself, but the injuries were not life-threatening. Authorities said Alvarez had a criminal record that involved drugs. District Attorney Steve Cooley said no decision had been made on charges in the wreck.

"This whole incident was started by a deranged individual that was suicidal," Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams said. "I think his intent at that time was to take his own life but changed his mind prior to the train actually striking this vehicle."

Alvarez's sister-in-law, Maricela Amaya, told Telemundo TV that he had separated from his wife, Carmelita, three months ago. She said the wife got a court order to keep him away, but he had tried to see his wife and son.

"He was having problems with drugs and all that and was violent and because of that he separated from her," Amaya said in Spanish. "A few other times he went around as if he wanted to kill himself. I said if you're going to kill yourself, go kill yourself far away. Don't come by here telling that to my sister."

She said he had also threatened suicide in front of his son.

The crash occurred at about 6 a.m. in an industrial area of Glendale, a suburb north of Los Angeles. One train was headed for Los Angeles' Union Station from Moorpark, a western suburb. The other train was outbound from Union Station to the San Fernando Valley.

Costco employee Jenny Doll said trapped passengers _ some severely injured _ screamed for help as flames raced toward the front of the train car and smoke and diesel fumes filled the air. Forklift operators, truck drivers and stock clerks from Costco worked side-by-side to pull victims out, using store carts to wheel some of the most severely injured to safety.

"There were people stuck in the front. Everything was mangled," Doll said. "You could not even tell that it was a train cab at all."

It was the worst U.S. rail tragedy since March 15, 1999, when an Amtrak train hit a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 11 people and injuring more than 100.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration were sent.

Past crashes have raised questions about whether rail lines should be separated from roadways to prevent the possibility of vehicles getting onto train tracks. But Wednesday's tragedy also drew criticism over the configuration of the train that struck the SUV.

Timothy Smith, state legislative chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, faulted the rail line for its use of the "cab-car" to lead the train, with the locomotive pushing from the rear. Unlike a locomotive, a cab car has a small control booth for the engineer, along with passenger seating.

If the heavier locomotive was at the front of the train, Smith said, it would have probably pushed the vehicle off the tracks and avoided a derailment. Having a locomotive pushing from the rear also creates an "accordion" effect on the middle cars, increasing damage, he said.

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