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Everyday Life Catapulted Into Surreal Horror

June 21, 2003|Joel Rubin, Daren Briscoe and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

On the short cul-de-sac in Commerce that runs alongside the railroad tracks, fresh lumber mingles with the detritus from the homes. A roll of toilet paper. A lampshade. A child's Superman bedsheets.

The residents of Davie Avenue are accustomed to freight traffic and Metrolink trains rumbling past. Then an out-of-control train derailed Friday afternoon.

Seconds before the crash, they had formed a tableau of everyday life.

Tony Rojo, 15, was playing basketball with friends in front of his house on Davie Avenue.

Next door, Enrique Avila, 34, was stepping out of the shower. He had pulled on his pants and socks. His young daughters were playing on the computer.

Luis Carlos Vasquez Jr., 31, was raking the backyard of his home across the street. His pregnant sister, Liza, was in the living room.

Then the everyday catapulted into surreal horror.

Vasquez looked up to see a cloud of dust. Rocks were flying. He felt paralyzed. He thought of Liza, who was alone in the house.

"I'm watching the train flip end over end. It all happened so quickly," he said.

Vasquez ran to the front of his house, determined to get his sister out.

"If she's going, I'm going with her," he recalled thinking.

A pair of train wheels fell right in front of him. As he ran inside, the ceiling was collapsing. He grabbed Liza, who was crying and screaming as they rushed away from the house.

When he looked back, Vasquez saw freight cars landing on his home, crushing it.

A parallel sequence unfolded across the street.

Avila felt the earth move under him. He left the bathroom, searching for his daughters, as the ceiling caved in. Melissa, 6, and Teresa, 13, were in the living room, terrified and crying. Dust was everywhere.

The front door was blocked with debris. Avila, still shirtless and shoeless, broke a living room window to get his girls out. Outside, he realized that his young neighbor, Rojo's sister Veronica, was home alone. He broke a window at her house to rescue her.

Tony Rojo had looked up from his basketball game, scared by the sound of the shrieking train.

He watched as homes were destroyed and a cloud of white smoke rose in the sky. Terrified, he ran around the block, circling back to find his sister.

Then there was relief. The neighbor he knew only as Enrique had saved her.

The evening brought time to exhale and survey the damage.

Avila, who suffered cuts from broken glass, had been treated at Beverly Hospital in Montebello and released. He said he did not know what his family would do next.

His pregnant neighbor, Liza Vasquez, also was examined at the hospital and released.

The Vasquez family, owners of two homes on Davie Avenue, both now demolished, faced the disheartening prospect of starting over.

"Everything is gone," said Luis Vasquez, who explained that the family had lived there for 25 years. "My parents worked all their lives to own these houses."

Vasquez said he had long been concerned that the trains ran so near.

"I've been afraid, especially of the freight trains, because they fly by," he said. "They really fly by."

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