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COLUMN ONE : Unwilling Agents of Death : Rail engineers are nearly always blameless, and they know that fatalities are a price of the Southland's growing transit network. But still the tragedies are impossible to forget.

February 17, 1993|HUGO MARTIN and NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Danny O'Connell remembers clearly the astonished face of the man who died at his hands four years ago.

O'Connell had just begun training to become a locomotive engineer--following in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather--when a motorist slipped around a lowered crossing gate in front of the speeding train O'Connell was operating.

"I was the last person he saw," said O'Connell, 32, of Yucaipa. "The expression on his face was so clear. I'll never forget it."

As an engineer for Metrolink, O'Connell relives the incident whenever one of Los Angeles' new commuter trains is involved in a fatal accident. That has been five times since the service began in October, most recently on Feb. 3 when a man sitting on the tracks in Sun Valley was hit by a train en route to Santa Clarita.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 18, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Train engineers--A story on train accidents in Wednesday's Times misstated the number of engineers who work for Metrolink and the Blue Line. There are 16 Metrolink engineers and 65 Blue Line operators.

Across town, the light-rail Metro Blue Line between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles has had 148 accidents, resulting in 12 deaths and numerous injuries, since it opened in July, 1990.

The accidents have reinforced for O'Connell and the 78 other Metrolink engineers and 63 Blue Line operators that deaths and injuries are as much a part of their job as mechanical glitches, long hours and kids who throw rocks at the cab or put furniture on the tracks.

The 140-mile Metrolink commuter system and the 22-mile Blue Line are segments of a 400-mile web of light- and heavy-rail lines that eventually will stretch from Ventura to San Diego to the Inland Empire.

As the system continues to expand through residential neighborhoods and commercial areas, the potential for accidents increases. And for every death or injury, the men and women at the throttles must cope with trauma, guilt, anger and a slew of other psychological and physical reactions.

"A lot of people don't think how the engineer feels--what kind of nightmares he has," said Tom Stokes, an engineer who was involved in seven non-fatal train accidents before he came to work for Metrolink. "In my mind I can see the faces of everybody I've hit."

Although they cannot cite precise figures or studies, rail authorities--including the Federal Railroad Administration--say that over the course of a career a locomotive engineer may be involved in as many as half a dozen deaths on the tracks.

In most of the accidents, the engineers or operators are found innocent of wrongdoing, particularly because they have little control once the trains get up to speed. Most often the deaths and injuries result from a motorist or pedestrian trying to outrun a speeding train and misjudging the distance or speed.

Each year, the average American engineer has a 1 in 6 chance of being involved in an accident, with a 1 in 15 chance that it will result in injury and a 1 in 60 chance that it will cause death, according to estimates by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, an international union based in Cleveland.

Although Blue Line operators are not classified as engineers because they work on a light-rail system, their chance of being involved in an accident is nearly 100% a year, if the current trend holds, with a 1 in 4.5 chance that it will result in a death.

The chance that an engineer will be involved in a fatal accident is higher than the chance that a police officer will be involved in a shooting. Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department marked a 10-year high for officer-involved shootings, about 10 per 1,000 officers, of which about a third were fatal. During the same year, locomotive engineers averaged 17 fatalities per 1,000 engineers, according to the union's statistics.

And like police officers after shootings, engineers say, they have etched in their memory every injury and death their trains have caused.

Some cope through black humor. Metrolink engineers often talk about an Amtrak engineer they say has been involved in 17 fatalities and joke about his macabre trophy: a coffee mug with 17 stick figures marked on the side.

"It's sick," agreed O'Connell. But, he said, "you become callous about it" because "you can't let it get to you."

One of the four engineers involved in fatal Metrolink accidents is Chris Younger. He'd had several accidents over 2 1/2 years as an engineer, but never one that resulted in a death until the night of Jan. 22.

That was when Eric Pola, 23, of Encino dashed in front of Younger's train as he ran to catch up with two friends sneaking into a drive-in movie in Chatsworth. Pola tripped on the tracks and Younger's 60 m.p.h. juggernaut hurled his body about 200 feet.

Although, given the odds, Younger had expected his train to kill somebody sooner or later, he said that after the accident he avoided looking at the body.

"I got off the engine and walked forward so I wouldn't see anything," he said. "I had to cool off for a minute."

He said he went home and concentrated on moving into his new house.

"Knowing it wasn't my fault, it still doesn't make it an easy experience," he said.

Ronnie Bean, a Blue Line operator, was in a crash last spring. He still has dreams and flashbacks.

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