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ANGELS FLIGHT CRASH

1 Killed, 7 Hurt as Cable Fails on Historic Angels Flight Car

February 02, 2001|BETH SHUSTER and JOCELYN Y. STEWART and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A historic cable car ascending the block-long Angels Flight railway suddenly plummeted down its steep track Thursday in downtown Los Angeles, slamming into a second cable car and killing an 83-year-old New Jersey man.

The terrifying lunchtime accident injured seven others as passengers tumbled wildly inside the restored, 100-year-old wooden car. One man was propelled out the open back door of the downhill car.

The accident, which was reported at 12:17 p.m., horrified crowds of pedestrians at California Plaza at the top of the hill and along Hill Street at the bottom, crumpling one of the most celebrated icons of the city's often forgotten past.

"It was a horrible sound," said Philip Barnes, a parking attendant at a nearby garage. "It was an ugly sound. It was one of those death sounds."

Riding inside, Sid Carter, a financial analyst, said he felt the car break free. He grabbed a pole, he said, hung on tight and "just waited to hit."

The accident killed Leon Praport, who died late Thursday at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. His wife remained in grave condition. The couple were on vacation, family members said.

Investigators from the city, the state Public Utilities Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board began trying to determine why a 1 1/2-inch-thick steel cable failed to hold, allowing the heavy rail car, nicknamed Sinai, to speed uncontrollably more than 200 feet.

"This is a terrible accident that should not have happened," said Mayor Richard Riordan, who visited the scene. "There should be fail-safe devices. My heart goes out to the victims and the families of the victims."

Riordan pledged that Angels Flight--which has had no accidents since it was reopened in 1996 by a nonprofit group after being closed for 27 years--will remain out of operation until officials can guarantee its safety.

Besides Mrs. Praport, there was one other passenger in serious condition at County-USC late Thursday, suffering from broken bones and internal injuries after being tossed about the plunging car, which has wooden bench seats and no seat belts. Five others suffered less serious injuries.

A dozen other passengers walked away unscathed, at least physically. Some were so stunned that they staggered from the scene, wide-eyed, brushing off assistance from police and paramedics, witnesses said.

Some of the victims had to be pulled from the Sinai and its orange and black twin named Olivet, which had nearly completed its run down the hill at the time of the impact. Others had to be extracted from under seats where they were pinned.

By 7 p.m., NTSB investigators said they had ruled out early reports that the cable snapped. They also found no problems with three separate braking systems, or with the track, which rests across concrete ties.

Investigators are now focusing on the drum mechanism, a winching device that lowers and raises the cars by unspooling one cable while it is reeling in the other.

"That's our next step. That's where we need more time," said Ted Turpin, an NTSB on-site investigator.

After providing thousands of 25-cent trips up and down the hill for nearly five years, witnesses said, the rail car broke loose without warning, just as it neared the top of Bunker Hill. It slammed into its twin coach, which had stopped as it neared the lower platform. The force was so great that the reverberation set off car alarms.

"It sounded like a building fell down. . . . It usually goes about 2 miles an hour; it must have been going 30," said Isis Burkholder, who was working in a coffee stand across the street when she saw the car hurtling down the track.

A man who had been sitting near the back of the downhill car came flying out the open door.

"His body turned in the air and he landed on his back," said Audrey Johnson, who watched from her office across the street. "He was very still. . . . I couldn't believe it. It had me shaking."

Bystanders rushed to the man, who was wedged into the tracks below the car.

"They didn't want to move him at first, but I was afraid the railroad car would come down and kill him," said Tim Holmes, who ran from Grand Central Market, where he was eating lunch.

Holmes and construction worker Richard Romero lifted the man, slid him down the tracks and put him down on the grass below, said Holmes, his pants caked with cable grease and blood.

Romero, who also was eating lunch nearby, said the man "flew out" of the lower car. "I picked him up and another guy got his legs," he said. "We carried him the rest of the way down. He was really bleeding a lot."

Soon joining the rescue were 70 firefighters, 11 fire companies and eight ambulances, which crowded onto Hill Street within minutes. Grand Central Market across the street was packed with its usual lunchtime clientele of lawyers, accountants, laborers and office clerks.

The four critically injured victims were placed on boards, then lowered from the tracks down to ambulances.

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