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Metrolink Train Kills Man in O.C.

Driver couldn't exit his car after it stopped or stalled at a Santa Ana crossing. It's the neighborhood's fourth rail death since 2000.

September 17, 2003|Dan Weikel and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

A 29-year-old man was killed Tuesday when a fast-moving commuter train slammed into his car moments after he stopped or stalled on the tracks at a Santa Ana railroad crossing, authorities said.

Witnesses said the driver tried in vain to get out of his car before it was crushed by the northbound Metrolink train, which pushed the four-door sedan about a quarter of a mile before the train ground to a halt.

None of the 347 passengers and two crew members was hurt.

Authorities said the crash occurred about 7:45 a.m. in the 900 block of South Lyon Street, a heavily traveled crossing north of McFadden Avenue, an area of houses, apartments and commercial buildings. Trains travel through the neighborhood at up to 90 mph.

"The vehicle was totaled and pinned to the front of the train," said Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva, a Santa Ana Police Department spokesman. "The driver's side took the full impact of the crash."

Coroner's officials identified the victim as Benjamin Martinez, 29, of Orange. Martinez was pronounced dead at the scene and had to be extricated from the wreckage.

Martinez had been driving south on Lyon Street in his 1991 Acura Legend toward the railroad crossing, where two tracks run diagonally across the road. What happened after that is unclear, De La Riva said.

Some witnesses told police that Martinez became trapped on the tracks as traffic backed up on Lyon from McFadden Avenue. People were saying that "the car behind him didn't let him move and that the car in front of him didn't move either," said Michael Gutierrez, 21, of Santa Ana, who lives in an apartment complex east of the tracks.

Other witnesses recalled that Martinez stopped at the crossing as the lights began flashing and warning devices started to sound. Without apparent reason, they said, the car lurched onto the tracks and stopped as the crossing gates lowered.

As the train bore down on him, Martinez started to open his door but was hit before he could escape, witnesses said.

There was "a big nasty sound" and the loud squeal of train brakes, said Gustavo Villapando, 21, of El Monte, who works at a nearby tire shop.

The incident is the latest in a series of fatal train accidents in the Santa Ana neighborhood. Two people, including a 12-year-old girl, were struck and killed by Amtrak and Metrolink trains in 2000. Two years later, a Santa Ana man was killed when his truck was hit by a train at the Lyon Street crossing, coroner's records show.

Hilse Landeros, the sister of the man killed in that incident, stood near the accident scene Tuesday, her eyes welling with tears. "I came because this accident reminded me of his death," she said.

Metrolink and Santa Ana police are investigating Tuesday's accident. The warning devices at the Lyon Street crossing were in good working order at the time of the accident, said Sharon Gavin, a Metrolink spokeswoman. Officials, however, did not know how fast the train was traveling.

Gavin said it took about two hours to clear the tracks before the stranded commuters could be taken to their destinations.

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