Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Commuter trains derail in Calif.
By Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY

GLENDALE, Calif. — At least 11 people were killed and 180 were injured Wednesday after a suicidal man left his sport-utility vehicle on railroad tracks and caused two commuter trains to smash into each other.

Police said Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, lost his nerve to kill himself moments before the speeding trains approached. He stepped away safely and watched in darkness and drizzle as a southbound train slammed into his abandoned Jeep Cherokee. That train derailed and jack-knifed into a northbound train.

Alvarez "was intent at the time on taking his own life but changed his mind," Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams said. "He exited the vehicle and stood by."

Police found Alvarez wandering near the blazing wreck, where 400 firefighters struggled through heavy smoke and mangled iron to free screaming passengers. Alvarez, who had stabbed himself and cut his wrists shortly before the crash, was remorseful and cooperative, Adams said.

"He was very distraught and upset and realized that he caused a major disaster," Adams said. Alvarez, who lives in Compton, Calif., was arrested and will face homicide charges, Adams said.

Worst since 1999

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

The crash happened just after 6 a.m. in a suburban area about 5 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Officials of Metrolink, the regional commuter-rail agency, said a three-car train with 200 to 250 passengers was southbound toward Los Angeles' Union Station from Moorpark, a suburb. Northbound on an adjacent track was a three-car Metrolink train taking 30 to 50 passengers toward Burbank.

Both trains were traveling about 30 mph below the 79-mph speed limit, authorities said.

The southbound train struck the Jeep, an "immovable force" lodged on tracks some distance from a railroad crossing, Metrolink CEO David Solow said.

The impact lifted the train's lead car off the rails. That car veered into a Union Pacific freight locomotive parked on a third track, overturning the locomotive and causing a brief fire when 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled. Trailing cars "accordioned" into rear cars of the passing train, Solow said.

"This is the perfect storm — the locomotive being over there, our train passing the moment the accident occurred," he said.

Passengers said they felt the southbound train's engineer hit the brakes. "I heard a noise. It got louder and louder," said passenger Diane Brady, 56, of Simi Valley. "And next thing I knew, the train tilted, everyone was screaming, and I held onto a pole for dear life.

Sixty-ton passenger cars were sliced open and twisted. Among the dead were an unidentified Amtrak conductor, working for Metrolink under contract, and Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff James Tutino, 47. He was a 23-year department veteran who was on his way to work at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles.

Unhurt passengers carried bleeding survivors from the train before emergency responders arrived. The dead "were spread all over — almost one in every car, is what it seemed," said Battalion Chief Greg Fry of the Los Angeles Fire Department. About 40 passengers were injured critically.

Maricela Amaya, the sister-in-law of the man who parked his Jeep on the tracks, told Telemundo TV that Alvarez 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.

According to the request for a 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."

Solow said suicide attempts on the five-county, 12-year-old Metrolink's lines are infrequent. "It's a tragedy," he said, "but the people know that these weird events that you can't control occur. They occur on the highway, also."

Train configuration

But Loren Joplin, a former safety official for the Santa Fe Railway, said Wednesday's carnage could have been largely avoided if a heavy locomotive had been at the front of the southbound train. The train had a "pusher" locomotive at the rear and a "cab car" in front. The second train was being pulled by a locomotive.

Metrolink and many other commuter lines run a train in the "push" mode in one direction and the "pull" mode in the other, rather than take the time to turn the train around at the end of the line, Joplin said.

"That accident would never have killed that many people had the engine been on the other end," Joplin said. "This push mode is not safe in the Los Angeles area, which has a lot of grade crossings. If they don't do something about it, it's going to happen again."

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