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Neighbors Fear Deadly Crossings in Santa Ana

September 18, 2003|Dan Weikel and Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writers

A day after Benjamin Martinez was killed by a high-speed commuter train, fear and resignation spread once again across the Santa Ana neighborhood that surrounds the two deadliest railroad crossings in Orange County.

Every day, as many as 45 trains roar by the densely populated neighborhood, reaching speeds of 90 mph.

"Safety is something we always have to keep in our minds when you live this close to the tracks," said Rosie Garcia, 25. "You hear about these accidents and it reminds you."

Garcia lives with her three children near the Lyon Street and McFadden Avenue crossings where Martinez and three other people died in train-related accidents since 2000.

The largely immigrant neighborhood is a swath of industrial buildings and apartments with such names as Warwick Square, Normandy Place and Town Meadow, belying their proximity to the dusty railroad tracks strewn with cans, cigarette butts and beer bottles.

Wednesday, the litter also contained a broken headlight, a piece of fender and other shrapnel from Martinez's Acura Legend, which was crushed by Metrolink 607 after the car stopped or stalled in the Lyon Street crossing.

At a schoolbus stop nearby, mothers gathered and talked about the accident. Most knew of the other deaths and complained the crossing signals do not give them enough warning.

"When the train passes, I always think: That could have plastered us," said Maria Zavala, 27, who crosses the tracks several times a day to buy food and take her four children to school.

Over the last three years, two people have been killed by trains in the Lyon Street crossing and two nearby at McFadden Avenue.

The deaths in Santa Ana involved motorists or pedestrians who strayed onto the tracks in front of oncoming trains. Throughout Orange County, there have been 25 accidents at grade crossings since 2000 involving trains, motor vehicles and pedestrians. . And in the last three years, there have been eight deaths -- half of them at the Santa Ana crossings.

In one accident, a 12-year-old girl walking home from a hamburger stand was killed in 2000 when she tried to outrun a northbound Metrolink train at the McFadden crossing.

Martinez, 29, of Orange, was killed about 7:45 a.m. Tuesday when his car stopped on the tracks in the 900 block of South Lyon Street. Witnesses say he was either trapped by traffic or stalled on the rails as the crossing gates came down.

As he tried to flee, a northbound Metrolink train smashed into the driver's side of Martinez's car, shoving it a quarter mile before the engineer could stop.

Metrolink, the Santa Ana police and the California Public Utilities Commission are investigating to determine the cause and whether the grade crossing needs to be improved.

An average Metrolink train weighs 450 tons and travels up to 79 mph, fast enough to cover a football field in three seconds. An engineer needs about a third of a mile to halt a train.

"Everyone is talking about this problem but no one does anything," said Rigoberto Suarez, 29, whose uncle lives in the neighborhood.

"When the accidents happen, everyone talks about it. But then they get busy. People here are caught up in just surviving," Suarez added.

Others say they did not realize they'd have to constantly think about their safety. Jose Pantoja, 25, a father of two, said the existing signs, bells and crossing gates do not provide sufficient warning.

"Somehow, there needs to be more notice," he said.

"Kids get off a bus less than a block away. More caution is needed."

Jim McInerney, a rail safety coordinator for the Public Utilities Commission, said pedestrians and motorists have at least 20 seconds to get off railroad tracks after warnings are activated.

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