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The Day Disaster Changed Their Lives

Victims and rescuers try to rebuild their world a year after the Metrolink crash near Glendale. Man charged with 11 murders still awaits trial.

January 26, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Most workdays when Karen Mendoza pulls into the parking lot of Costco Warehouse on Los Feliz Boulevard to begin her 4:30 a.m. shift, she sees a train parked on the adjacent railroad tracks and thinks, Not today.

There is no getting away from the reminders. As she logs in deliveries to Costco's receiving docks, the plaintive call of passing trains blooms in her chest.

"Whenever I hear it," she says, "part of me thinks, 'This is the place. This is where it happened. Please slow down.' "

A year ago today, just before dawn, on the other side of the Costco parking lot fence, the known world came violently apart for the 180 passengers on Metrolink Trains 100 and 901 in the most destructive Southern California railroad wreck in recent memory.

Train 100, inbound from Ventura County, struck a sport utility vehicle left on the tracks near Glendale by an apparently suicidal driver, derailed into a parked freight train, then jackknifed into Train 901, coming from Union Station in the opposite direction.

The resultant disintegration erased the lives of 11 people onboard and injured the rest. It also sent out a seismic wave that shook those like Mendoza who were nearby and others, such as the families of the crash victims, who were far from the wreckage.

The re-imposition of human order began immediately with Costco workers' attempts to extricate survivors and battle flames. It has continued, uninterrupted, in the year since.

Coroner's investigators reassembled segmented bodies. Bereaved families started knitting their lives around the absence of loved ones. The injured adapted to their disabilities and discomforts. Lawyers began fixing blame and Metrolink embarked on a program of increased safety.

Juan Manuel Alvarez -- the 26-year-old man who left his Jeep Cherokee 150 feet up the tracks from the Chevy Chase Drive crossing, allegedly doused it with gasoline, then watched the catastrophe unfold -- awaits trial on 11 counts of murder.

Since the wreck, an estimated 60,000 passengers, including some of the survivors, have ridden Trains 100 and 901. Like an apple halved then put back together slightly misaligned, however, the present can never look exactly like the past for those involved.

Sounded Like Thunder

Karen Mendoza and Mark Zavala, a forklift driver, were standing near a closed dock door in the Costco receiving department when they heard a floor-shaking boom. It was drizzling outside, and although they assumed the noise was thunder, Zavala went into the predawn dark to investigate.

He could make out a train car leaning at a weird angle from the track. When he got to the end of the building, the silent, smoking wreckage, weirdly lighted by low fires, lay before him. A passenger carriage, its end blasted open and smashed to rubble, had crashed through the trackside fence and come to rest about 20 feet from the warehouse. The ruptured engine of the freight train was spilling copious amounts of diesel fuel, the smell of which suffused everything.

Zavala ran back to the receiving area and banged on a door to be let in. "The Metrolink crashed," he told Mendoza. "Call 911." Zavala told other employees to bring fire extinguishers.

For minutes that seemed hours long, the Costco workers were on their own, emptying their extinguishers into the flames. They heard low moaning coming from someone in the wreckage: "Help me. I don't want to burn." Up to their ankles in diesel fuel, they located the injured man.

"You remember when you were a kid and you had one of those airplanes that flew with a rubber band that you twisted? That was what his legs looked like," Zavala said.

"We had to lift him out by his pants and shirt because he was all broken up so bad," he said. "We laid him down by the side of the building. He had a bad head wound. He was bleeding bad. He kept saying 'I don't want to die,' and we tried to console him, saying help was coming. But I could tell he wasn't going to make it."

A little later, after fire and rescue teams swarmed in, Zavala saw the man lying on a flat Costco inventory cart. He recognized him by his legs, which protruded from the shroud that now covered him.

On a recent morning, Zavala and Mendoza walked the site. Sunlight reflected dully from the asphalt of the Costco parking lot, which had been resurfaced to repair damage from the wreck. New fencing and shrubs had been set along the tracks.

In the last year, the 40-year-old Zavala, who lives in Castaic, has seen his father die and a son born. The Metrolink crash, however, is "something I'm never going to forget," he said. "I'm glad we were able to help people. It's a thing of the past, but I'm not going to forget it. Never, ever."

Mendoza, who is 36 and lives in Covina, said the wreck "changed my life. These were ordinary people, just going to work. It taught me something about taking life for granted. Now I always make it a point to say 'Thank you' and 'I love you.' I let the love flow from my heart easier now."

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