CORONA — Four railway crew members were killed and two others were injured Wednesday when a westbound freight train veered into an eastbound freight before dawn, igniting a spectacular inferno, according to authorities and witnesses.
The deaths occurred about 4:10 a.m. when the westbound train--for reasons that remain under investigation--left a side track and collided with the oncoming Chicago-bound freight traveling about 30 m.p.h., according to Michael A. Martin, a spokesman for Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co.
"We know what happened--the westbound train didn't stop," said Delbert M. Miller, an investigator for Santa Fe. "But we're not sure why."
The entire crew of the westbound traindied. They were identified as conductor James S. Wakefield, 55, of Fontana, engineer Gary R. Ledoux, 35, of Highland and brakeman Virginia C. Hartzell, 29, of Baldwin Park, said Corona Police Sgt. Tim Slane. On the eastbound train, which consisted of 47 cars and three locomotives, brakeman Ronald A. Westervelt, 52, of San Bernardino was killed. The crash occurred in an industrial area of Corona, a Riverside County city located about 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Both trains were operated by the Santa Fe company.
Riverside Deputy Coroner Alan Wasefeldt said the four bodies were burned beyond recognition and that it could not be determined immediately whether the victims were killed by the fire or by the impact of the collision.
The two crew members of the eastbound train who survived were taken to area hospitals with injuries that Martin and medical officials described as less than life threatening.
James Dawson, 50, the engineer, was in fair condition with a broken knee and cuts on the head at Riverside General Hospital, nursing supervisor Jane Dolan said. Warren Sanders, 51, the conductor, was in good condition with a broken ankle at Corona Community Hospital, according to nursing supervisor Kathy Stephens.
Emergency officials in Corona also were continuing to monitor a natural gas pipeline and a crude oil line 7 feet beneath the crash site.
"At this point it is felt they are both stable and not affected," Slane said.
It was in May, 1989, that four people died in San Bernardino, 24 miles from Wednesday's tragedy, when a runaway Southern Pacific freight crashed. Thirteen days later, a natural gas pipeline damaged by the train wreck exploded, killing six people, injuring dozens more and damaging or destroying 29 homes.
On Wednesday, Corona City Manager William H. Garrett was mindful of the events of 18 months ago. "There certainly is potential for a major catastrophe," Garrett said. "And we're just very fortunate."
As investigators from the railroad company and the National Transportation Safety Board began sifting through the wreckage to determine how and why the Corona crash happened, this preliminary sketch emerged:
The westbound crew headed out of the Mojave Desert town of Barstow about 10:15 p.m., scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles near daybreak. As it approached Corona, railroad dispatchers cleared the eastbound freight for right of way to the central portion of track because that freight was carrying, among other things, U.S. mail.
The westbound train, with 92 cars and five locomotives, switched to a parallel, 8,370-foot-long strip of track, called siding, where it should have remained until the eastbound freight had passed. But, inexplicably, the westbound train did not stop. Its lead engine, where Martin said all three crew members sat, rammed into the No. 2 engine of the eastbound freight at the point where the siding rejoins the main track. Four locomotives and at least six freight cars derailed.
A conflagration--stoked by the engines' thousands of gallons of diesel fuel--quickly engulfed the derailed locomotives and freight cars, converting the pre-dawn darkness to white light.
"A huge fireball came up," said Scott Hill, a private security guard who had been making a round of checks in the neighboring industrial park. "It was hot, it was real hot."
Hill's supervisor, R.A. (Rocky) Weaver, was the first to call the California Highway Patrol to report the inferno. Saying that he and his colleagues got to within 100 yards of the tangled wreckage, Hill declared that it was impossible to assist the crash victims while the fire raged.
"If you would have gotten any closer, you would have melted up," Weaver said, adding that fire units responded within minutes. Remnants of the blaze flamed for four hours.
Martin, the spokesman for Santa Fe, said late Wednesday that data collected by devices called event recorders on the westbound train indicates that the freight was traveling about 8 m.p.h. on the siding before the collision.
"The indication is that (the engineer) put the emergency brakes on," Martin said. "He put the emergency brakes on after he got past the point of no return. . . . Everything was fine until he got to the west end."