Wednesday, 1:17 PM PST, January 26, 2005

Survivor: 'We Were Walking Around Like Zombies'
By Erika Hayasaki,David Pierson and Michael Muskal - Times Staff Writers

Wednesday began the same way as so many other recent days for David Rice. At 3:30 a.m.

For the last six months, Rice, 20, said he has been a regular commuter from his Ventura County home to his job as a computer technician in downtown Los Angeles. At 4:30, he caught his usual train in Moorpark for the 65-minute ride downtown. He even took his usual seat at the top of the last car.

"I always sit in that car for this reason. It's the last car to get hit so it won't be as bad," Rice said.

Rice's caution seemed to pay off when his ride was interrupted by the crash of two commuter trains after one hit a Jeep Cherokee parked on the tracks. A man was being held and was expected to be charged with murder in connection with the incident that claimed at least 10 lives.

"I was asleep and I heard rocks hitting the bottom of the train. I didn't know what was going on, so I went downstairs and there was blood on the floor. There was a sheriff's deputy who was bloodied and he needed help. I held the door open," he said.

Being careful on trains was also second nature for Russ Francis, 48, of Simi Valley. He said he has been taking the train several times a month to visit his aunt and cousin near Lake Elsinore, and had a personal safety plan.

"I always sit in the second to the last car from the back," he said. "I figured that you don't want to be in the front car if you get in a wreck, and you don't want to be in the very last car because of the whip."

About 30 to 40 passengers, mostly men, were traveling in the second to the last car when suddenly, "it felt like we hit a car. The train jumped. It was scary," Francis said. "I thought we either hit a car or ran over something really big on the tracks. It sounded like we were dragging something under the train."

For about 10 seconds, the scraping, screeching sound intensified. "It got faster and faster, louder and louder," he said.

Then the lights went out and there was more screeching.

Fearing an impact, Francis said he grabbed a nearby pole and braced his foot against the wall.

"Then we started hearing heavy metal," he said. "The metal sounded like it was being ripped around. I realized we were done, we were crashing."

The impact was strong and quick. And immediately after, silence.

Francis looked around and saw passengers lying on the floor, eyeglasses strewn about. In the darkness he could make out a bloody forehead, a bloody neck.

The second to the last car did not overturn. Francis grabbed his rolling suitcase and started to make his way toward the door, watching a woman trying to help a man off the train.

"We've got to get out of this train right now," he remembered telling the couple. He estimated it took him about 10 seconds to get out of the car. Outside, he trekked up to the first car and found a man in a uniform shirt lying on the ground. He reached out and grabbed his hand to help him, but the injured man fell back on his face, unable to move.

Nearby, Francis saw another severely injured man lying on the ground, wearing what appeared to be a uniform jacket. His face was like "a hood of blood. It looked like a shell where his head should have been. He had no face."

Passengers "were walking around like zombies," he said. "I thought, these people are in shock, they don't know what the hell to do."

He then saw black smoke billowing from one car.

"This place is going to blow," Francis recalled. A group of factory workers adjacent to the crash site grabbed a ladder so that Francis and others could scale a chain link fence and escape the track area.

Uninjured, and with his black roller-suitcase in tow, Francis walked a few blocks to Glendale Memorial Hospital and called his mother.

Mark Zavali, a 20-year Costco employee, had been unloading goods since 4 a.m. when he said he heard a crash. The steel uprights and walls of the warehouse store shook. He ran with co-workers — some carrying fire extinguishers — to see what had happened.

It was still pitch black, but flames coming from one of the derailed train cars cast some light.

"Diesel fuel was pouring out onto the ground. We got it all over our clothes. We were scared it was going to catch on fire," Zavali, 39, said. "We saw scores and scores of people coming out of the train. Some of them didn't even have a scratch on them."

But others were badly hurt. They heard screaming and some crying, "Help me, please!"

Juan Guzman watched as his co-workers from Costco pulled a badly injured man from the wreckage.

"They couldn't even hold his hand," said Guzman, who said the man looked like he was in his 60s. "There was blood everywhere. His bones were all busted up. His legs were like spaghetti, and one of his arms was bent all the way back."

Zavali helped carry the man to the asphalt.

"He told us: Don't let me die. Pray for me," Zavali said.

Firefighters later said the man died.

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