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Looking Back on a 'Miracle'

June 20, 2004|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

As if on cue, like some haunting reminder of exactly 11:58 a.m. nearly one year ago, the deep baritone rumble of a Union Pacific freight train began bearing down Saturday on Davie Avenue in Commerce.

About 200 residents, city officials, firefighters and sheriff's deputies were poised to unveil a sign and a plaque to commemorate the first anniversary of the morning a runaway freight train was derailed into their neighborhood with a thunderous crash that felt like an earthquake.

A mountain of debris -- tons of twisted metal and lumber -- covered the area. Thirteen people were injured, three homes were destroyed, and the damage totaled $2.4 million.

On Saturday, the audience watched in silence as the train roared by. When it had passed, Mayor Ray "Gordy" Cisneros tugged off a long white sheet covering a street sign and turned the 25-yard cul-de-sac of Davie Avenue into Miracle Place.

"What really stunned us that day, more than the spectacle of the derailment, was that no lives were lost," Cisneros said. "What I heard again and again was that this was a miracle, a miracle that everyone survived."

Even so, Miracle Place bears the scars of June 20, 2003, when a runaway 31-car train was purposely derailed by Union Pacific dispatchers rather than risk hitting a commuter liner or another train carrying liquefied gas and chlorine.

A vacant lot that was the site of the Vasquez family home reminds residents of the days and months of displacement many endured. Moments before the ceremony, a Vasquez family member hammered a sign into the lot reading: "It's been a year and we're still homeless."

The Ruiz home next door is still in cracked disrepair, and Ramiro Ruiz is slowing trying to fix damaged stucco and plaster, room by room.

The two families are among four with outstanding claims against Union Pacific. The Vasquezes have sued the railroad, charging negligence. Ramiro Ruiz said he was still negotiating with Union Pacific because what officials had offered him "just isn't fair."

Wayne Horiuchi, a Union Pacific representative who attended the ceremony, said that the railroad had settled with 35 other families but that he could not comment on the outstanding claims.

In addition to the settlements, he said, Union Pacific had taken steps to prevent railroad cars from breaking loose, including revamping procedures so trains could be stopped or derailed in railroad yards before they became runaways.

A recent National Transportation Safety Board report blamed Union Pacific and a pair of its crews for the accident. The report found that brakes were not properly applied as the train sat in a Montclair rail yard, allowing the cars to roll away.

Residents, however, were focused more Saturday on giving thanks that they lost only things and not loved ones. Rather than discuss blame, they looked to the future and continued to urge Union Pacific to build a $1-million sound wall to buffer them from the tracks and noise.

Horiuchi said the railroad and city officials were finalizing bids for the wall, which he said would be built in the coming months.

"In Commerce, we realize that we live in the midst of industry, with truck and railroad tracks, and it's not easy to coexist," Mayor Cisneros said. "But we hope we can do what is needed to ensure our safety."

Several families said it had taken them months to feel comfortable again. Many lived in hotels for weeks or months; some took advantage of therapy for themselves and children. And some said they flash back to the morning of June 20 every time they hear a train.

"When I see these trains, when I hear the noise, all I can thing about was how the house was falling in behind me as I was running away," said Liza Vasquez, whose family home was destroyed. She was six months pregnant, and her brother pulled her out of the house before it collapsed.

On Saturday, she held her healthy, 9-month-old boy, Joel Alexander Velasquez, and talked about the difficulties of moving forward against setback after setback. She and the boy's father have had to move into an apartment instead of sharing a home with her parents. She had to drop out of college to help pay the rent.

"I'm hoping we can all go back to living together again," she said. "But I want to tell my little boy what a miracle he is."

Across the street, it has taken the Vazquez boys eight months to start sleeping through the night again or to want to play in their backyard, which the accident covered with lumber and train wreckage.

"Every night for months my 7-year-old would pile pillows around his bed at night, as if it would protect him," said Dora Vazquez, 45.

But her husband's 1989 Acura Integra -- flattened by the debris -- has been replaced, and their fence and yard have been repaired. As a reminder, she keeps a foot-long wooden shard from a railroad tie that landed on her patio.

Her neighbor, Fernando Bonada, said he accepted a $70,000 settlement from the railroad, enabling him to repair his home with new floor tile, kitchen cabinets and a bathroom remodel.

Amid the wreckage, he said, he managed to salvage an unscathed ceramic angel. He and others got the idea to rename their street Angel Avenue or Angels Way.

"But there are too many angel things in Los Angeles," he said in Spanish, emphasizing the Angeles. "But this really was a miracle, a miracle that no one died."

Yes, but just for future protection, Bonada cemented four foot-high statues of guardian angels on top of his new fence.

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