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'Total destruction': At least 15 dead in Metrolink crash

'Victims are on top of victims'

September 13, 2008|Joel Rubin, Ann M. Simmons and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Rescue teams worked frantically into the night Friday after a Metrolink passenger train carrying 225 people collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train on a sharp curve in Chatsworth, killing at least 15 people and leaving more than 135 injured. It was one of the worst train crashes in Southern California history and Metrolink officials said they could not explain why warning systems failed to prevent such a catastrophic collision.

Los Angeles City Fire Capt. John Virant, his face glistening with sweat hours after the crash, described the scene as "total destruction . . . chaos." "They are in there removing dead bodies that are lying on top of survivors," Virant said. In the front train carriage, he said, "it was as if somebody had just taken all the seats and thrown them in there."

Metrolink's Train 111, en route from Los Angeles' Union Station to Moorpark, had just left the Chatsworth station when the crash occurred at 4:23 p.m. on a 45-degree bend. The engine of the freight train embedded itself in the front Metrolink carriage as both trains derailed, sending one of the train's three cars full of homebound commuters keeling onto its side. An earsplitting concussion rocked nearby homes, followed by screams from those aboard.

"I saw it coming," said Eric Forbes, 56, an administrator at Cal State Northridge who was riding in the second or third car of the Metrolink train when he glanced out the window to see the freight train bearing down. He spoke later at a nearby triage center, his raspy voice swelling with emotion as he was wheeled on a stretcher to an ambulance.

"There was no time to stop," he said. "The next thing I knew I was in a seat in front of me. It was horrible."

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrell said officials did not yet know how the accident occurred. "Obviously two trains are not supposed to be at the same place at the same time."

Tom Dinger, an engineer who retired last year from Amtrak after a 43-year railroad career, said normal procedure called for the northbound passenger train to pull into a rail siding at the Chatsworth station to allow the southbound freight train to pass. He said he had steered through that stretch of track hundreds of times. Between Chatsworth and Simi Valley there is only one set of tracks because of narrow tunnels that trains use to go through the Santa Susana Pass.

He said he talked by telephone with Metrolink conductor Bob Hildebrand, who was injured. Hildebrand told him he was in the rear club car when the trains collided. "He told me they were going 40 mph and came to a dead stop," Dinger said.

Metrolink said the train's engineer, whom it did not identify, died in the crash. There was no word on the fate of the Union Pacific crew.

Joelle Ouellet, 38, said she was a few hundred feet away, turning around her horse on a nearby ranch, when the trains collided. "I heard a huge crash," she said. "Then I saw a fireball. I ran over there and there were people lying all over the hill."

As the rescue effort swung into full gear, yellow-clad firefighters clambered over the train cars and peeled back the roof of one car to gain entry to the passenger compartment.

"Victims are on top of victims," Los Angeles Fire Chief Douglas Barry said after surveying the scene. "Metal and debris is all tangled together. It's a difficult situation."

At one point, a Los Angeles police officer went to the house of Jim Halty, who lives near the tracks. They had a brief conversation and the officer left with an American flag.

A short time later, alongside the wreckage, scores of uniformed Los Angeles Police Department officers formed two lines in a makeshift formation waiting for rescue crews to extract the body of an LAPD officer, Spree Desha, 35, who was on her way home from work.

With somber faces and hands clasped in front of them, they waited in silence, many peering up at the hole cut in the twisted metal of the front train car, from which firefighters were pulling bodies.

Shortly after sunset, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke to reporters at the scene, saying: "We don't know the number of people still trapped inside. We don't know what condition they're in. There are people trapped in there dead and alive -- they know that some are dead."

He said at least 10 fatalities had been confirmed by the coroner's office and that the number of injured "is hard to estimate at this point. We know that dozens of people have been injured, probably over 100." The death toll was later raised to at least 15.

Villaraigosa also said he was heartbroken by what he called "the devastation, the carnage," adding, "I haven't seen anything like it."

There were three passenger cars on the Metrolink train, each capable of carrying up to 155 people.

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