Wednesday, January 26, 2005

'It was a complete nightmare' passengers describe derailment

GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) — The commuter train was cruising toward Los Angeles just before daybreak when a terrifying image emerged just ahead: a sport utility vehicle parked squarely on the tracks.

The train plowed into the Jeep Grand Cherokee, derailed and crashed into an oncoming commuter train, sending riders tumbling down the aisles of the double-deck rail cars and creating a devastating scene of twisted metal.

At least 11 people were killed and more than 180 injured in the nation's worst train wreck in nearly six years. Dozens were in critical condition. One elderly man on the train was covered in blood and soot, his legs and arms apparently broken.

Authorities said the crash was caused by an aborted suicide attempt by a man who parked the SUV on the tracks. Police said he then changed his mind and got out of the vehicle before the Metrolink train came crashing down. The man was arrested.

"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."

The 11th body was discovered in the wreckage after nightfall, bringing the number of victims to two women and nine men, including sheriff's Deputy James Tutino, 47, whose flag-draped body was saluted by law enforcement 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.

Employees at a nearby Costco who heard the thunderous collision rushed to the scene, including forklift operators, truck drivers and stock clerks who worked side-by-side to pull victims from the wreckage before flames from the crash got out of control. They used store carts to wheel some of the most severely injured to safety.

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

The SUV's driver, Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, of Compton, was 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.

According to the request for a temporary restraining order, which was granted Dec. 14, Carmelita Alvarez said her husband "threatened to take our kid away and to hurt my family members."

"He is planning on selling his vehicle to buy and gun and threatened to use it," she said in the court documents. "He is using drugs and has been in and out of rehab twice."

The crash occurred in an industrial area of Glendale, a suburb north of Los Angeles. One train was inbound to Los Angeles' Union Station from Moorpark, a western suburb. The other train was outbound from Union Station to the San Fernando Valley. The inbound train hit the SUV about 6 a.m., just as the other train was about to pass in the other direction. The second train also jumped the tracks.

More than 120 people were sent to hospitals, and another 60 were assessed at the scene and released.

The wreck set in motion a massive rescue and triage operation, including more than 300 firefighters who climbed ladders into windows of battered train cars. Dazed passengers, some limping, gathered at tables in a nearby store, while the injured sprawled on color-coded mats in the parking lot: red for those with severe injuries, green for those less seriously harmed.

Anguished relatives rushed to the area to find out what had become of passengers on the trains. George Touma, 19, said he was called by his mother, who was on one of the trains.

"She told me she was bleeding in the head and her arm was really hurting," said Touma, who was near the scene searching for her. "I'm really worried because she has vertigo and when I tried to call back she wouldn't answer.

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.

Teams from the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration were dispatched.

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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