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Riders Hope to Keep Their Connections

Commuting: A day after a Metrolink crash that injured hundreds, travelers wonder about friends and familiar faces on the route.

April 25, 2002|MIKE ANTON and TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

William Schroeder has forged some of his friendships in staggered encounters of an hour or so a day, the time it usually takes him to ride Metrolink 809 from his Riverside home to his job in Irvine.

Among these friends are Ron and Edna, Jenny and Lulu, regulars who sit in the same part of the train each morning and pass the time with a newspaper or small talk.

They were there Tuesday when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train ran a signal and plowed into their little world, killing two people and injuring scores. Schroeder hasn't seen the others since.

"All I know is their first names," Schroeder, 37, said Wednesday morning as he boarded a bus in Riverside, a substitute way to work until the Metrolink line opened later in the day. "We had our little group on the third car. A lot of those people were injured. I don't know where they're at now and I'm worried about them."

Train wrecks disrupt in myriad, and obvious, ways. People are killed or injured. Survivors relive harrowing moments and gut-wrenching scenes as their minds rewind to events they'd rather forget.

Less obvious are the disruptions to relationships, the shredding of gossamer connections among people who share nothing more than time, space and a commuter's bench.

"It's kind of a micro-community that we have in the last car," Barrie Britton, a bandage covering a gash across the bridge of his nose, said as he boarded the bus Wednesday morning. "The one I'm really worried about is Pat, the conductor. He's friends with all the regulars. If he sees one of us running for the train in the morning, he'll hold the train. He's just a super guy."

As in other parts of society, the commuters aboard Train 809 tend to sort themselves by common elements. Britton is part of a group of eight Boeing workers who rely on 809 to get from Riverside to their jobs in Anaheim. Another group heads off on a shuttle from the Anaheim Canyon station to Cal State Fullerton.

Some of the relationships extend beyond the commute. Joe Lee, 56, joined a Bible study group that meets on the upper level of Train 809's middle car.

"They are my train friends," he said Wednesday afternoon as he waited in Anaheim for his train home to Moreno Valley. "You don't see them away from here, but you're anxious to see them when you're here.... You know about peoples' lives, but you only see them on the train. Through talking with them you find out we have lots in common."

One group of about 15 regulars has knit together an uncommon fraternity aboard Metrolink, including Train 809. Wednesday evening, several of them were aboard Train 806 for the return trip from Irvine to Riverside.

There are three Bobs, two Mikes and two others just known as "very loud people." Over six years they've shared birthdays and retirements, job changes and personal crises while following one cardinal rule:

"We know that what is said on the train stays on the train," said Diane Martinez , who works in patient financial services at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

"We tell each other our problems," Bob Carlos said. "You tell them things you can't tell your own families."

Four members of the group were injured in Tuesday's crash. None of those were commuting Wednesday, but they were in their friends' thoughts. Jody broke a rib. Cindy hurt her back. Richard had a concussion and Robin was knocked unconscious.

Those were all the details the group had--and all they needed to know, other than that their friends would recover.

No one in the group could remember how or why they came together. They convene in the morning in the second car from the front, and in the third car on the way home at night.

For Sheila J. Fisher, the train is a mobile social club. Over the last four years of commuting from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, she has helped organize two Christmas parties and recently read from the Torah during an on-board Seder.

''It takes seven of us to fill out a crossword puzzle,'' she said, adding that by the time she gets off the train she has ''left behind all of the woes of the day.''

Commuter conversations between Leslie Francisco, 47, of Riverside and Linda Pittman, 44, of Moreno Valley evolved over the years into a deeper friendship than most of those struck up on the rails. Both women missed Tuesday's wreck. Francisco took the day off; Pittman now takes another train.

"I wasn't on the train, but I knew people on it and feel like I went through it all," Francisco said Wednesday afternoon as she waited to board her train at Anaheim Canyon station.

The evening after the wreck, the two friends reached out to each other.

"She called yesterday to see if I was OK," Francisco said. "We talk about our families, we care for each other, e-mail each other. We talk about work, our husbands."

For most, though, the connections are more tenuous. Schroeder, for instance, worried Wednesday about familiar faces but didn't know the people well enough to figure out how to reach them.

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