A Santa Fe railroad train derailed after apparently rear-ending another train in a commercial area of Pico Rivera late Friday night, killing one crewman and triggering a diesel fuel explosion that set several commercial buildings, a small church and at least one home afire.
County Fire Department Deputy Chief William Zeason said the dead man, a supervising engineer on the moving train, was either thrown or jumped from the train and was caught in the ensuing fire.
A Santa Fe engineer and brakeman who also leaped from the train before the 10:38 p.m. impact were taken to Pico Rivera Community Hospital, Zeason said, where their condition was reported as not life-threatening.
Officials did not believe anyone was inside the church or the other buildings when they caught fire.
Zeason said the train, with three engines and a load of empty cars, struck the stopped train. Spilled fuel from the diesel engines started the fire.
Fifteen Los Angeles County fire engines and one from Santa Fe Springs, two ambulances and two hazardous materials units were sent to the site. County Fire Capt. Neal Shupe said he did not believe the fire involved toxic chemicals, but the hazardous materials team was called in as a precaution, and several houses were reportedly evacuated.
The derailment and explosion near Slauson Avenue and Passons Boulevard sent a burning train engine "in flames on top of a house," according to witness Lorretta Schmidt.
Burning fuel coursed down nearby streets, igniting another house as "the flames just followed" the flowing fuel. "It was like a moat," she said.
The area is a stretch of track where the railroad does a lot of switching throughout the night, said Sheriff's Sgt. Pat Fallis of the Pico Rivera Substation.
Del Fonso Chagolla, 34, of Pico Rivera was at the intersection of Slauson and Serapis Avenue "on my way to Alpha Beta when all of a sudden, boom!"
"It shook the hell out of my car. I looked over at the railroad tracks and all I could see was a bunch of dirt; the train was crooked and then there was fire," he said.
Armando Losoya, who lives about 100 yards away, said he thought the jolt from the explosion was an earthquake aftershock because "the house shook a little bit."
When he got to the site, "I saw these two cars on the side, they had toppled over. I understand one of them was derailed and ran into the other one, and it caused the explosion."
Two churches on opposite sides of the tracks were "leveled," he said, and from her bedroom window, Virginia Losoya, who had been getting into the shower, "could see flames--there were two huge palm trees on fire."
Hundreds of people gathered at the corner of Slauson and Serapis, and deputies had a difficult time keeping people behind lines.
Times Staff Writer Wes Hughes contributed to this story.