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The Metrolink Crash

Sudden Impact Pitches Commuters Into Chaos

April 24, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE, SCOTT GOLD and JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Metrolink conductor Patrick Phillips was standing at his work station early Tuesday, filling out paperwork, keeping track of arrival times. He had counted about 240 tickets when they passed a signal for the train to slow to 25 mph and prepare to switch to another track on their way south.

The train instead made an emergency stop, and then the engineer ran past him, yelling a warning to everyone in the car.

"He said, 'It's a big one, it's a big one!' " said Phillips, 49, of Riverside. " 'We're going to get hit!' "

In one jarring instant, Phillips and the passengers aboard Metrolink Train 809 found themselves flying through the air, banging into walls and tables and each other in a screaming, bloody whirl. Nearly all of the double-deck train's 300 commuters suffered some sort of injury and two of them died in a collision with a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train.

"It happened so fast for me that I don't remember the impact myself. I just remember flying through the room and landing on the other side," Phillips said Tuesday night. He was recuperating from a concussion, bruises and cuts at his parents' Inland Empire home.

"I yelled at everyone to get down: 'Buckle up everyone. We're going to get hit.' And they pretty much did, at least the ones who could hear me. They were hitting the deck, stowing luggage under their seats. Some had their heads in between their legs in a curled up position. . . . Maybe it worked. I hoped it helped a little."

Phillips and the others in the lead car who were warned by Engineer Mike Dudgeon's frantic run from the front of the train had a few seconds to brace themselves. For passengers in the second and third cars, the collision brought a violent end to a routine morning of conversation, reading and napping.

Will Meier, 19, was catching a few extra minutes of sleep in the lead car as he traveled from his Riverside home to morning classes as a freshman at Cal State Fullerton. He was awakened by the engineer's shouts: "Get down! Get down, right now!" Meier, not fully awake, did as told. "I wasn't sure what was happening."

Loydene Keith, 59, was also in the first car, riding near the front as part of her regular commute to Cal State Fullerton, where she is dean of students. Keith likes to sit with other regulars.

Her first inkling of trouble was a hissing. "We looked at each other and said, 'It sounds like the brakes.' "

As the passengers ducked, Keith tucked into the defensive position that flight attendants advise in the event of a rough landing: body forward, head between the knees. Then she scrunched to the edge of her seat and crouched as low as she could, waiting.

The freight train banged into the commuter train, bumping it backward. Then it ran into it again, harder this time, sending passengers bounding.

Jackie Bisesi, 38, of Placentia was watching the collision unfold while buying gas at a nearby station. She heard the freight train's whistle pierce the morning air--not the usual series of short bursts but a long sustained blast. She ran to the sidewalk to get a better view and saw two trains on one track.

"I couldn't do anything. I just froze," Bisesi said.

She started waving her hands. "To warn them, as if they could see me. I screamed, 'Stop! Stop!' The ground shook. It felt like the worst earthquake I ever felt. It hit so hard it knocked me back."

The next few seconds were marked by mostly silence. Then passengers began frantically trying to find ways out of the cars, pounding on windows and doors to get them open.

"People were crawling out the windows and they were coming out the doors," Bisesi said. "First they were milling around. People were walking around holding their heads, holding their stomachs. They were screaming, crying." She heard some passengers wondering if it had been a terrorist attack.

Patrick Madden, 37, had been sitting in his usual spot in the middle car, partly out of habit and partly out of a sense that somehow it might be safer. He had just finished making small talk with a commuting buddy, Kevin Barnett, who was sitting across from him, and cracked open the morning paper to read about the latest Anaheim Angels loss. As usual, he sat back to front, leaning sideways.

After the impact, he caught himself at the edge of a table and somehow kept his balance. Barnett had been jammed into the table edge and was moaning about his ribs.

Above Madden on the upper level, Rick Coverdell, 42, of Riverside was also driven into a table. "Next thing I know, I was on the floor. I had the wind knocked out of me."

Savitha Mandi pulled herself up from the floor and felt pain shoot through her back and left hip. On a normal day, she wouldn't have been on Train 809 at all. But she'd overslept and missed her train from Corona that connected in Orange to downtown Los Angeles and her job at a mutual fund firm.

So she joined her husband, who takes the later train to his job at an Irvine bank, and was on a cell phone conference call when she was jolted out of her seat.

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