In November, it was a driver trying to beat the train at night. In July, it was an evangelist preaching to someone on the other side of the tracks. Before that, it was the driver of a tractor-trailer at an unprotected railroad crossing.
In Ventura County, 13 people were killed by trains in 1998. In all these cases, there were other, less-publicized victims--the engineers at the controls.
They are the ones with the ongoing nightmares, wondering if there was any way they could have prevented the accidents.
They are people like Tom Stokes, a Simi Valley resident and Metrolink engineer who's been involved in at least 30 collisions in the last seven years, including five fatalities.
Stokes' worst accident involved two girls, both 11, who were playing "chicken" on the tracks near Glendale. The two were darting back and forth across the tracks when they were hit.
The youths suffered severe injuries and remained in the hospital for almost a year. Stokes, a 20-year veteran of the rails, said the memory of hitting the two girls--then the same age as his daughter--will haunt him forever.
On average, an engineer like Stokes will face about seven fatalities in the span of a career, making it among the most psychologically demanding jobs a person can hold, said Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo.
Although engineers know what dangers they can expect, no amount of training or forethought can prepare them for the actual experience of hitting a child or seeing the terror in the eyes of a motorist moments before impact, they say.
And while the train industry has made significant strides in recent years in providing educational and counseling programs for employees, some say the psychological services are not as comprehensive or effective as those offered to workers in comparable industries such as law enforcement and fire departments.
Most importantly, they say, the mental health of engineers is crucial to public safety, especially at a time of increasing commuter train service locally. In 1998, there were about 500 non-suicide deaths involving train accidents nationwide, officials said.
After his Metrolink commuter train leaves the Moorpark station at 5 a.m. on its daily trip to downtown Los Angeles, Stokes blows his horn every few seconds, changes speed constantly and communicates frequently with a central dispatch center.
All the while his eyes dart from the tracks to his control panel to the side streets and back to the tracks. He stands or sits, but he watches like a hawk as the train makes its way through Simi Valley.
Stokes once had three Simi Valley school buses dart across the tracks in one day.
Simi drivers are careless and foolhardy, he said, especially where New Los Angeles Avenue parallels the tracks. Numerous crossings provide ample opportunities for people to skirt the gates or stop on the tracks, which they often do.
"I'm going to have a collision in Simi very soon," Stokes said. "It's just the law of averages."
Stokes' only accident in Ventura County was in 1996, when two young men were driving their new pickup truck on the tracks between Moorpark and Simi Valley.
As Stokes' train came around a curve at 75 mph, the distant truck was zooming on and around the tracks. Stokes blew his horn and threw on the emergency brake, but the truck continued to speed along next to the train. When the collision occurred, Stokes hurled himself onto the floor to avoid flying glass and metal.
"I thought I killed them, and we went to look for the bodies," he said. When he finally found the truck, demolished in a ravine, the two men were nearby, uninjured but badly shaken.
Stokes said one of his most traumatic crashes occurred in September 1996 and involved a motorist who tried to beat the train.
"He must have misjudged the speed of the train, and he tried to go across but his car stalled on the tracks," Stokes said. "He made every attempt to get out of the way, his door was open and he got tangled in his seat belt. I saw his desperate and frantic attempts to get out of the way. But he didn't make it.
"I thought it was so traumatic because I saw he was so frantically trying to live."
Gary Adams, a 20-year train veteran who was riding with Stokes that early morning, said his first fatality involved a 19-year-old boy in 1995.
"I came around a bend, heading for San Diego at 90 mph, and there were two figures walking along," Adams said. "I'm blowing my horn and ringing my bell, and one guy stepped left and the other right. But the one kid thought he had time to make it back across to his friend. That was it."
His second fatality was a 90-year-old man who walked around crossing gates as the train approached, Adams said.
"I saw him, he tried to hurry, but it was too late," he said. "I'm sure he never wanted to end his life that way."
Both men agreed that the majority of the crashes occur because people make stupid mistakes, not because they have a death wish.